# I will choose free willJune 28, 2009 7:11 PM   Subscribe

The Free Will Theorem - "If there exist experimenters with (some) free will, then elementary particles also have (some) free will." (previously)
posted by kliuless (229 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

I prefer free whim.
posted by ageispolis at 7:24 PM on June 28, 2009

Well I definitely agree with the guy's definition of free will:
When the floor was opened for questions, one member of the audience questioned Dr Conway's use of the term "Free Will". She asked whether Dr Conway was "confusing randomness and free will".

In a passionate reply, Dr Conway said that what he had shown, with mathematical precision, that if a given property was exhibited by an experimenter than that same property was exhibited by particles. He had been careful when constructing his theorem to use the same term "free will" in the antecedent and consequent of his theorem. He said he did not really care what people chose to call it. Some people choose to call it "free will" only when there is some judgment involved. He said he felt that "free will" was freer if it was unhampered by judgment - that it was almost a whim. "If you don't like the term Free Will, call it Free Whim - this is the Free Whim Theorem".
It's an uninteresting definition but it seems to me that's the only intelligible definition there could be.
posted by XMLicious at 7:24 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

John Conway talk, you listen!
posted by unSane at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2009

I was fated to read about this Free Will Theorem.
posted by jamstigator at 7:38 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

if i'm having a bad day, then some elementary particles will also have a bad day
posted by pyramid termite at 7:53 PM on June 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I can't (or don't have time to) follow the proof--but it makes intuitive sense to me both that (a) the only real way to define "free will" makes it the same thing as "randomness", and (b) if we have free will, it's by virtue of quantum nondeterminism. Of course, the way I interpret these results is, "we don't have free will because all attempts to define it as distinct from randomness fail," but how you choose to look at it is really just a matter of preference.

On the other hand, Rush is right. Act as if you have free will, because it's the only way to live.
posted by goingonit at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

There's been an ongoing discussion about this in recent issues of Nature. It's probably behind a paywall, but I'll link anyway...

It started, I think, with this essay from an issue in May by Martin Heisenberg (Werner was his father). The argument is based largely on data from studies of animal behavior. Animals, even very simple animals, demonstrate spontaneous behaviors in situations where no preprogrammed stimulus-response connection is expected. It's also based, like Conway's argument, on randomness. He uses a Kantian definition of free will.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2009

I can confirm that mr_roboto's link is paywall'd. Ah well.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:05 PM on June 28, 2009

See also (Note: My understanding of monadology comes from The Baroque Cycle)

Also, the whole question of free will is kind of moot giving the halting problem and computational complexity right? I mean, does a computer program running on a Turing machine have free will? In theory no, right? But at the same time, neither it nor anyone else can tell you what it's going to do without running it, at which point it will have effectively done whatever it was going to do.

(and of course, humans have lots of random inputs as well)

I think a computational understanding of "free will" is the simplest and it's entirely non-paradoxical as well: An agent has "free will" if you can't predict what it's going to do in the future.
posted by delmoi at 8:10 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think a computational understanding of "free will" is the simplest and it's entirely non-paradoxical as well: An agent has "free will" if you can't predict what it's going to do in the future.

This sort of definition looks like an example of trying to destroy the village in order to save it--it works only at the expense of what we normally associate with free will. If Bob has a choice to kill Steve or not, adherents of free will would say he has the positive ability to decide whether he kills him or not--not simply a negative inability to know in advance whether he'll kill him. Otherwise, not only is there no actual willing, but also the moral implications free will is supposed to have are totally absent.

If I think free will is a meaningless and contradictory concept, as I do, there's nothing in the quantum-indeterminacy view that can convince me otherwise. If there's no positive willing, there's no point.
posted by nasreddin at 8:21 PM on June 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

1. It seems to me that he's inverting the usual use of quantum physics to support free will, rather than saying "particles have free will, therefore we do!" it seems to be the other way around in his claim, which has that great big assumption at the beginning of it.

2. This doesn't appear to be anything new- the idea that a probabilistic universe (rather than a strictly deterministic universe) equates to free will isn't really novel. The redefinition of free will that this necessitates is something he's not shy about, either. But it does raise the question of whether what the majority of people who believe in free will actually mean when they talk about free will- i.e. that we are autonomous beings who meaningfully make choices- is compatible with this conception. I think that it is not. While a deterministic universe and a probabilistic universe have different kinds of causality, neither puts causality where the general conception of free will puts it- with the actor.

There's a program called SLIGE which creates randomly-generated Doom levels. To my mind, calling randomness free will is as silly as calling someone who runs SLIGE a Doom level designer.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:23 PM on June 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think a computational understanding of "free will" is the simplest and it's entirely non-paradoxical as well: An agent has "free will" if you can't predict what it's going to do in the future.

But this hand-waves past an important point: who is "you"? The halting problem states that you can't make a machine such that can determine the halting status of every single machine; but any given machine is a different story. We can certainly enumerate most of the halting and non-halting machines.

But more than that, there is no set called "the machines that do halt, but we can never prove it." For any halting machine, you can always just keep simulating it, and if you simulate it for long enough you will have "proved" that it halts. But a really smart person could probably reduce that slightly by skipping a few of the steps...so you don't even have to "simulate" it in its entirety. So is there really a good "free will" definition hiding in there?

Maybe---there are probably some machines where the termination proof is at least as "complicated" in some sense as the machine itself (i.e. the shortest way to prove the machine halts is by simulating it). But this set is uncomputable. That's fine, maybe so is free will. But more problematically than that, if a machine halts immedately, clearly simulating is the quickest way to prove that it halts. Do you really want to impute free will to such machines?

Sorry for the rambling, I'm just thinking aloud. I've never really thought of free will as related to computability before.
posted by goingonit at 8:30 PM on June 28, 2009

Ok ... how is that not a compositional fallacy?
posted by RavinDave at 8:32 PM on June 28, 2009

I thought this said "Free Wii" and got excited in spite of myself.
posted by mecran01 at 8:34 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

An agent has "free will" if you can't predict what it's going to do in the future.

Predictor, rather than recognizing its own lack of predictive power, will project onto Predictee the power of unpredictability. Predictor will call such power Free Will, thereby implying choice, thereby implying exploitable weakness (i.e. persuadability), thereby implying Predictor's latent power of persuasion, thereby implying Predictor's extant power of prediction. Predictor keeps job.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:39 PM on June 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Ok ... how is that not a compositional fallacy?

The proof "if X has free will, some part of X must be the "free will part", or X must be an elementary particle, therefore if anything has free will then it's because elementary particles do" would indeed be a compositional fallacy. But this is not the proof given. The proof isn't even about the elementary particles that constitute a person, but rather about a person observing an elementary particle.
posted by goingonit at 8:43 PM on June 28, 2009

The concept of free will is nonsensical, it's like dividing by zero, you can get any kind of ridiculous result if you accept it as an axiom.
posted by empath at 8:55 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

@goingonit Ahh ... I see now. Thanx.
posted by RavinDave at 9:07 PM on June 28, 2009

I have no idea why everyone's talking about "randomness". Randomness doesn't even enter into this - in fact, if this were a statistical result, it would be uninteresting.

However, there does seem to be a hole in this argument - I'm curious as to whether anyone can help me resolve it as I'm completely sure that JHWH Conway(*) is far more advanced than I.

"Once the particles are separated by distance , it takes a time T for information from one particle to reach another."

Surely this is just EPR all over again? We know that in fact quantum entanglement resolves on measurement instantly - time T is 0. Doesn't this render the rest of the argument moot?

(* obscure joke)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:09 PM on June 28, 2009

"The concept of free will is nonsensical, it's like dividing by zero, you can get any kind of ridiculous result if you accept it as an axiom."

So how do you then account for the fact you wrote that comment, if you didn't choose to do so?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:13 PM on June 28, 2009

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

Perhaps the scariest thought would be if they were right - for themselves - and they were simply a soulless automaton.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:16 PM on June 28, 2009

Tru, 'nuff, lupus. But one of the stated assumptions was FIN. You are free (so to speak) to disbelieve in FIN, if you like.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:26 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

So how do you then account for the fact you wrote that comment, if you didn't choose to do so?

How do you account for the fact that a rock rolls down hill if it didn't choose to do so?
posted by empath at 9:27 PM on June 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

Perhaps the scariest thought would be if they were right - for themselves - and they were simply a soulless automaton.

Do you actually believe in a soul or were you just being metaphorical?
posted by empath at 9:30 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

How would you know if you didn't have free will?
posted by unSane at 9:35 PM on June 28, 2009

So how do you then account for the fact you wrote that comment, if you didn't choose to do so?

A serious answer: There is an unbreakable illusion of free will, because I'm not capable of perceiving the deterministic forces that lead to 'my' 'choosing' to post the comment. I can't help but feel that I'm acting of my own volition, even though what I do is just the result of physical processes. In order to say that something has free will, you have to say what that something is -- my brain? My body? My 'consciousness'? Anything you choose as the source of the free will has problems that arise when you examine it closely.
posted by empath at 9:38 PM on June 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Tru, 'nuff, lupus. But one of the stated assumptions was FIN. You are free (so to speak) to disbelieve in FIN, if you like.
Hasn't 'spooky action at a distance' been demonstrated? If so doesn't that undermine the proof by negating the FIN axiom?
posted by unSane at 9:40 PM on June 28, 2009

This is a transcendent question. Take it easy, everybody.
posted by rainy at 9:41 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Spinoza said: if a rock flying through the air were sentient, it would imagine that it too was flying of its own volition.

Schopenhauer also has a good take on this. In effect, we are not agents; we observe ourselves acting. The best we can do with all our thinking and weighing possibilities is pass time until the decision is made for us, at which point we can think about it some more. (Note that this does not operate on the level of physics, but rather of individual subjective experience, so even the "unbreakable illusion of free will" splinters along the action/observation axis.)
posted by nasreddin at 9:54 PM on June 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

I knew you were going to say that.
posted by erniepan at 10:30 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

How would you know if you didn't have free will

That actually really stopped me cold.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:40 PM on June 28, 2009

If two scientists decided to test for spin on the same particle at exactly the same time, and they were to each choose conflicting points on that particle to test, resulting in a place where the spin squared would be both 0 and 1 at the same time... how would the resulting paradox be different than if those scientists both had their locations for where to test for spin chosen for them at random? When and how would it resolve?

And most importantly, will the cat survive?
posted by hippybear at 10:53 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

We make decisions, right? Good.

You can make decisions by collecting information and applying logic to find the best possible conclusion. Is that deterministic? OK, then good planners behave deterministically.

You can make decisions by outlining your options and rolling dice to pick one. Is that random? OK, then a lot of people are random a lot of the time. Maybe they don't actually roll dice, but they might as well.

What if, through the application of logic to good premises, you find many possible solutions to whatever problem you have, and don't have any good way to pick one of these over the other? Then you might as well just pick one randomly, right?

There's plenty of room for both determinism and randomness in human behavior. There's no reason to exclude either one.

So, if "free will" just means being unpredictable, sure, you can do that. Roll dice if you have to.

Is that not satisfying enough? OK, let's say that "free will" means being unpredictable in the way that is most satisfying for you. That means you have to narrow down your options to the ones that are most satisfying for you, and then pick randomly.

What's the problem?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:57 PM on June 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can make decisions by collecting information and applying logic to find the best possible conclusion. Is that deterministic? OK, then good planners behave deterministically.

You're operating on the wrong level. The question of free will is much more basic than that. Why do you make decisions that way? What exactly is making the decision? How is the decision made? How do you know why the decision was made? Could the decision have been made any other way?
posted by empath at 11:02 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You're describing the brain as a computer, actually. And a computer is decidedly deterministic.
posted by empath at 11:04 PM on June 28, 2009

Atoms may have free will, but do they care?
posted by delmoi at 11:05 PM on June 28, 2009

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

Funnily enough, we all have an unhealthy fascination with George Romero movies. I'm not really into them myself, but every time one of his flicks show up at a screening, there I am - first in line, because, hey, no free will.
posted by Sparx at 11:10 PM on June 28, 2009

You're operating on the wrong level. The question of free will is much more basic than that. Why do you make decisions that way?

Because it works.

What exactly is making the decision?

A big ol' wad of neurons, networked together into a particular configuration by the experiences I have had throughout my life. Or, if I'm working with really unusual levels of rigor, because I'm using the rules of logic as tested and codified by generations of logicians.

How is the decision made?

By thinking a lot (through whatever procedures), winnowing down the available options, and eventually arriving at a set of acceptable solutions culled from the massive space of possible solutions.

How do you know why the decision was made?

I don't. That's not relevant to my line of thinking.

Could the decision have been made any other way?

Well, if I use the technique of narrowing down the solution space to, let's say, six acceptable solutions, and I roll a die to select one, then the decision could have been made five other ways. What of it?

I'm not questioning the legitimacy of the Free Will Theorem, I'm just vaguely confused why the whole free will thing is even an issue for anybody.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:11 PM on June 28, 2009

It amuses me every time that free will is mentioned on Metafilter that the folks who are determinist appear rotely.
posted by klangklangston at 11:12 PM on June 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

But this hand-waves past an important point: who is "you"? The halting problem states that you can't make a machine such that can determine the halting status of every single machine; but any given machine is a different story. We can certainly enumerate most of the halting and non-halting machines.

Uh, no.
posted by delmoi at 11:13 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

LogicalDash: it's an issue because it has bearing on determining what is good and what is not good. If there is no free will, then nothing is good or not-good. If there is free will, then where does it come from? Neurons and their connections were arranged by some combination of nature and nurture, neither of which you had a control of; or rather, what control you did exert was defined by combination of these things you started with. That would appear to mean that everything is deterministic. But we know that elementary particles behave non-deterministically, i.e. randomly. This boils up to the macroscopic world. But even so it's just a soup of deterministicity seasoned with a few grains of salt of randomness. Therefore, why would you care about your life or death? Either of them is just the same as everything else that happens. Things like 'work hard', 'be decent', 'betrayal', 'invasion of iraq - a mistake?' lose any and all meaning. That's why people smarter than you or me called this a transcendent question and put a lid on it!
posted by rainy at 11:31 PM on June 28, 2009

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

It doesn't matter. It's not a question you can ever answer for yourself, the same way you cannot ever truly know another's experience. You cannot be certain whether or not you have free will, for the same reason you cannot ever actually make an objective observation. Every observation you make, every sensory response you have, your every thought, is subjective. Your thought may be about your feelings, or a mathematical axiom, or an inexpressible abstraction; all are equally contained and constrained within the walls of your mind.

We can communicate to each other, obviously--we do so at this moment, now--but what I present is my writing, subjectively written by me; and what you read is your observation of what is written, subjectively read by you. In my writing and your reading we have gotten so close that the barriers of understanding between us are transfinitely small (actually it's a great deal bigger than that, because I could make a typo without knowing, or you could misread a word, but let's assume for the sake of argument that we have not), but the barriers are still there, a thin "reality bag" that surrounds me and one that surrounds you.

Same for free will. All decisions I make, in the privacy of myself, within my reality bag, are subjective to me. Your observations of them, if any, are subjective to you. By convention, and rightly so, we assume a capacity to send information back and forth between us; you can watch me do something, I can explain why I did it, you can hear and understand me, and we can end up in our separate minds each with a more-or-less true copy of "why Aeschenkarnos did that". You can disbelieve me and have instead "what Aeschenkarnos said as why he did what he did" and "what I really think Aeschenkarnos' reason(s) were" (and different versions of that, with varying probability estimates attached); I can equally fool myself, or try to fool you, etc. But there is simply no way for you to tell, for certain, why I did what I did.

Obviously you can get pretty damn close, more than close enough for social cohesion. But you can never get all the way into my mind, for certain. You cannot make an objective observation of me. You cannot determine whether I have free will.

Which brings us back to the original question - can you determine whether you have free will? Without reference to another point of view, ie an objective observation, you can't prove it one way or the other. But you can't make objective observations. And my subjective observations of you cannot ever be objectively communicated to you with the fidelity that proof of free will would require. So ... no, philosophically it's not a determinable question. IM(S)O.

Ethically it's a ridiculously abstruse question to the point where it's pretty much irrelevant. Just assume that any living being that you can meaningfully interact with in real life has free will; any simulated entity such as a sprite in a computer game or a character in a book or TV show does not. QED. (Yes, you can still eat them, or put out roach motels for them, or spray them off your roses. Having free will is really, really low on the "does its life matter?" scale, IMO.) How it will exercise that free will is--tautologically--up to it.

When it comes to dealing with other people, anyone who openly denies that others have free will is considered--rightly--mentally ill, and as far as I am aware it's not even possible to genuinely have that opinion; the simple act of expressing it to another, defeats it. (Maybe. It may still be possible to think of other people as a kind of "Chinese room", and have an intellectual/practical interest in seeing what scrolls come out when the scroll "do you have free will?" is pushed in, and try to "work out the rules"; but it's a combination of utter autism and total empathy unlikely to exist outside of a Peter Watts novel; unreasonable to expect in real life.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:32 PM on June 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

A big ol' wad of neurons, networked together into a particular configuration by the experiences I have had throughout my life.

*ding*

The neurons are something *you* have no control over. You had no control of their initial configuration or subsequent growth or their current behavior. Neurons act the way they do because purely physical processes that have nothing to do with your perception of free will.
posted by empath at 11:34 PM on June 28, 2009

By thinking a lot (through whatever procedures), winnowing down the available options, and eventually arriving at a set of acceptable solutions culled from the massive space of possible solutions.

This describes a vanishingly small percentage of actions you take on a day to day basis. The vast majority of them are done without a single moment of conscious thought. And it's been proven experimentally that people make decisions unconsciously even when they believe that they made a conscious decision to act.
posted by empath at 11:36 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Darn it ... of my own partially expressed free will, I missed making my point about randomness and unpredictability not being the same as free will. "Random" is subjective, it just means that you didn't know how or why the outcome would be what it was. Maybe that was because no-one involved knew, or because the difficulty of determining it would be beyond practicality (like tossing a die). Conversely, I can still say "yes" or "no" of my own free will in response to an invitation to dinner, and even if you predicted, expected, and prepared for me to say "yes", I have still exercised free will in doing so.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:38 PM on June 28, 2009

empath (eponysterical ...) Neurons act the way they do because purely physical processes that have nothing to do with your perception of free will.

Definitely. Free will cannot belong to your neurons, your hands, even the sum total of your component parts as a biological entity - it has to belong to you as a philosophical construct.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:41 PM on June 28, 2009

When it comes to dealing with other people, anyone who openly denies that others have free will is considered--rightly--mentally ill, and as far as I am aware it's not even possible to genuinely have that opinion; the simple act of expressing it to another, defeats it.

That's complete nonsense. There's been open debate over the existence of free will for thousands of years. Conventionally, we all behave as if free will exists, even if we don't believe it does, its very difficult to live any other way.
posted by empath at 11:42 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

What if all you really are is the "sum total of your component parts as a biological entity"?
posted by dosterm at 11:44 PM on June 28, 2009

The neurons are something *you* have no control over. You had no control of their initial configuration or subsequent growth or their current behavior. Neurons act the way they do because purely physical processes that have nothing to do with your perception of free will.

You seem to be implying that I somehow exist independent of the neurons that make me up.

I have a degree of control over the way they'll be wired in the future, though. And if you want to argue that the decision I make about, say, what subject to study next is just a product of the configuration of my brain, well, I could just roll dice.

I probably wouldn't actually roll dice, but I see no reason to suppose that my synapses have no randomness in them. Said randomness can be constrained to various degrees, by only considering those options I find excellent. So I've got some determinism (I only pay attention to the stuff I like), some randomness (in a moment of indecision I make a choice at random), and by setting up the constraints right I think I can achieve both unpredictability and satisfaction with my decisions.

This describes a vanishingly small percentage of actions you take on a day to day basis. The vast majority of them are done without a single moment of conscious thought. And it's been proven experimentally that people make decisions unconsciously even when they believe that they made a conscious decision to act.

Why shouldn't I be able to winnow down my options subconsciously?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:45 PM on June 28, 2009

That's why people smarter than you or me called this a transcendent question and put a lid on it!

Look, I liked the Kant reference early on, but this is just not a good argument. Kant doesn't set out anything approaching a satisfactory proof that free will is a transcendent question--in fact, he effectively concedes that out here in phenomena-land, things are determined. What's at issue for him is some kind of fuzzy hypothetical noumenal free will that intersects with his moral theory, but I don't see how that's relevant to this discussion at all.

Which brings us back to the original question - can you determine whether you have free will? Without reference to another point of view, ie an objective observation, you can't prove it one way or the other. But you can't make objective observations. And my subjective observations of you cannot ever be objectively communicated to you with the fidelity that proof of free will would require. So ... no, philosophically it's not a determinable question. IM(S)O.

This is a senseless "free will of the gaps" argument. "Subjective" and "objective" observation are not decisive; even if you somehow got "objective" access to something else, you wouldn't be able to determine whether you have free will or not (or at least I can't see how that would be possible, and you haven't spelled it out). What I do know is this: people are material objects. Material objects interact with one another either deterministically (on the large scale) or nondeterministically (on the quantum level). Whichever level you think matters for free will, you still don't get choice out of it. If determinism is what's relevant, cause A always has effect B; if it's nondeterminism, your choice of cause A will never be decisive in bringing about effect B. No free will.

When it comes to dealing with other people, anyone who openly denies that others have free will is considered--rightly--mentally ill, and as far as I am aware it's not even possible to genuinely have that opinion; the simple act of expressing it to another, defeats it.

This is just really offensive. I'm not mentally ill, as far as I know. I do interact with people on a pragmatic basis using vocabulary that is accepted in normal society. I know that atoms are mostly empty space, but I am comfortable inhabiting a world that has solid objects; free will is the same way. It's a matter of giving up the supposed metaphysical foundation for your beliefs, just as morality is.

And, from rainy:

Things like 'work hard', 'be decent', 'betrayal', 'invasion of iraq - a mistake?' lose any and all meaning

Why would this be true? This is just like the idiotic creationist argument that evolution makes everything meaningless. Why would things "lose meaning"? They have meaning as long as you feel they're meaningful. If the truth-status of a single metaphysical proposition is enough to make you a nihilist, then I guess I feel bad for you.
posted by nasreddin at 11:51 PM on June 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

More to the point, and in a (slightly) less snarky manner, the similarities in rhetorical tone between arguments advancing hard determinism and hard atheism annoy me for the same reasons, largely unconnected to the underlying argument—the absolute certainty and dismissive attitude of the proponents.

Leaving aside atheism, which seems to me to be on stronger rhetorical footing, it always annoys me to see the same arguments trotted out for determinism.

Take, for example, my intransigence over lunch. I have the materials to make a cheese sandwich and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both take roughly the same amount of effort, both take the same time, both will satiate me equally. So I make a pb&j. I choose it, I say. I choose freely to make it.

Not so fast, says the imaginary determinist, John Saint Rawman. You didn't choose to make it, an endless chain of tiny events led inexorably to your making the sandwich. It could not have been otherwise given those circumstances.

If I say I chose to make it, St. Rawman asks me how I chose—what's the seat of my free will? Obviously, the implication goes, if I believe in free will, I've left the realm of the material, as there's no way to prove with materialist science a non-material cause. I might as well believe that magic fairies guided my hand, and we're back to determinism, only imaginary.

But there's no counter-explanation given. St. Rawman doesn't pretend to know the complexities of why my quarks spun to make my neurons fire to make the sandwich (or whatever chain you like). Just that I did, therefore I must've. The missing how is only used as an argument against free will. The missing how is never presented as an argument against determinism.

I believe I choose. I believe that I intend. And, to mirror nasreddin, I don't believe that there will ever be any formulation that shows I don't. I realize the problems of appeals, but I'd feel comfortable saying that even the vast majority of people who consider themselves determinists still use the same language of choice, of intention. They also consider morality and ethics, even democracy and rights. And while those things can all be reframed into a deterministic system, I think doing so misses very real meaning constructed within them. Subjective meaning may be an illusion, but I think making that argument exposes one to the same criticisms of authenticity as a positive value that anything else does.

(To head off some of the recurrent, ill-formed pseudo-rebuttals I've gotten before, I'm not saying that objectivity is useless or that the idea of cause and effect is false or anything. I like science, I open doors before I walk through them, etc. But I'm also wary of claims that are universal, and tend to think that the only arguments against solipsism are grounded in intuition over proof. I also think that the lack of good definitions of free will or consciousness or any number of other philosophical bugaboos is more representative of the difficulty and proximity of the concepts, rather than their inherent truth or falseness.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:51 PM on June 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Why shouldn't I be able to winnow down my options subconsciously?

A subconscious decision is almost by definition 'not-free'. If your conscious mind had no part in the decision, then in what sense was it a free choice? You had no control over it.
posted by empath at 11:54 PM on June 28, 2009

I probably wouldn't actually roll dice, but I see no reason to suppose that my synapses have no randomness in them. Said randomness can be constrained to various degrees, by only considering those options I find excellent. So I've got some determinism (I only pay attention to the stuff I like), some randomness (in a moment of indecision I make a choice at random), and by setting up the constraints right I think I can achieve both unpredictability and satisfaction with my decisions.

And where the hell do "decisions" interact with "synapses" on the molecular level? Sorry, but that's kind of a gobbledygooky idea. You're not exercising direct control over the molecules in your neurons when you think. Your assumption is that your subjectivity preexists your neurons, and that's just not true.
posted by nasreddin at 11:55 PM on June 28, 2009

A subconscious decision is almost by definition 'not-free'. If your conscious mind had no part in the decision, then in what sense was it a free choice? You had no control over it.

My subconscious mind is a part of me, too.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:56 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I realize the problems of appeals, but I'd feel comfortable saying that even the vast majority of people who consider themselves determinists still use the same language of choice, of intention.

We can't help it, it's the way our brains are wired.

Duh :)
posted by empath at 11:58 PM on June 28, 2009

I believe I choose. I believe that I intend. And, to mirror nasreddin, I don't believe that there will ever be any formulation that shows I don't. I realize the problems of appeals, but I'd feel comfortable saying that even the vast majority of people who consider themselves determinists still use the same language of choice, of intention. They also consider morality and ethics, even democracy and rights. And while those things can all be reframed into a deterministic system, I think doing so misses very real meaning constructed within them. Subjective meaning may be an illusion, but I think making that argument exposes one to the same criticisms of authenticity as a positive value that anything else does.

Look, I'm not riding the eliminativist train here. I think that what you're talking about--all that stuff about the way humans talk about ethics and choice and rights--is all great. What I think is bad is the demand for it to be grounded in metaphysics. As long as you're willing to say that it's strictly a matter of pragmatics and "subjective meaning" (I think that's a problematic term, but anyways), I'm right there with you.
posted by nasreddin at 11:58 PM on June 28, 2009

A subconscious decision is almost by definition 'not-free'. If your conscious mind had no part in the decision, then in what sense was it a free choice? You had no control over it.

My subconscious mind is a part of me, too.

Right, but now you're just begging the question. If a rock rolls down hill, did it do it of it's own free will? You can't claim an action was the result of your will if you didn't will it to happen. If you make decisions unconsciously or instinctively, then they are no more free than a tree choosing to grow towards the sun.
posted by empath at 12:01 AM on June 29, 2009

Schopenhauer also has a good take on this.

Schopenhauer's bon mot on the subject is too good to resist quoting: "Spinoza [...] says that if a stone projected through the air had consciousness, it would imagine it was flying of its own will. I add merely that the stone would be right."

(Schopenhauer, like Hume et al, thought that it makes sense to say both that we have free will and that our decisions are necessitated by forces that we do not control.)

The important thing, I think, is to distinguish the sense in which the question of free will is interesting from the sense in which it isn't. If you're talking about the fundamental physics of reality, then free will is not an interesting concept; there's no such thing, unless you want to define free will as some form or consequence of physical non-determinism. To steal a comparison from Noam Chomsky, the question of whether free will is physically possible is about as interesting as the question of whether submarines can swim--if you want to call that swimming/willing, be my guest, but it's strictly a terminological matter.

It seems to me that free will really arises as a question only when we're talking about the world "as we experience it" as opposed to the world "as it is." (Scare quotes to allow the philosophically inclined to substitute their favorite technical finesse-job on that blunt and unstable dichotomy.) Free will arises as a concept when we compare some experiences (say, walking across the street) to others (say, falling down a hill) and try to figure out why it seems like we are "free" in one case and not in another. The easy solution, of course, is to say that we are externally constrained in one case and not in the other; this can be generalized to cases where the constraint is not brutely physical. (E.g., when you're robbed at gunpoint, do you give up your wallet of your own free will? Hobbes would say yes, Locke no, etc.)

The question "Is there free will at all?" arises when you generalize to the point where the constraints are no longer perceived by the agent--say, aspects of your personality that lead you to do one thing rather than another, or the physical processes that underlie/correspond to/are what we call "decisions." It seems to me, at least prima facie, that when the discussion reaches this point, the concept of "free will" loses most of its interest. It would be to say that "free will" is not a physical or scientific concept, it's an ethical and political concept.

(Not to say that there aren't plenty of interesting scientific questions about decisions and their psychological/neurological hoo-hah, but it seems very dubious to me that "free will" would enter into those debates as a scientific concept rather than as a bit of human-interest media-bait.)

(On preview: many long and involved comments have appeared while I was writing this one, and if I were to pause to read them all, no doubt more would appear, and I'd have to read those, and on and on. So, right here, at this very moment, in this very comment, I make the decision to hit "Post Comment"...NOW.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:02 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

And where the hell do "decisions" interact with "synapses" on the molecular level? Sorry, but that's kind of a gobbledygooky idea. You're not exercising direct control over the molecules in your neurons when you think. Your assumption is that your subjectivity preexists your neurons, and that's just not true.

Eh, what? Did I claim to exercise direct control over my synapses? I only claimed that I do some things deterministically and some things randomly. I think that's a pretty reasonable claim.

Now, maybe in real life I wouldn't know what I'm doing deterministically and what I'm doing randomly. So I might screw up and act in a way that's not consistent with my will, or try to do something at random but accidentally follow a procedure instead. Sure, that happens all the time. It doesn't change the fact that I can a) Make good choices, and b) Be unpredictable, at the same time. Maybe not all the time, but some.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:02 AM on June 29, 2009

"I have the materials to make a cheese sandwich and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both take roughly the same amount of effort, both take the same time, both will satiate me equally. So I make a pb&j. I choose it, I say. I choose freely to make it."

There's no way in hell I'd ever eat peanut butter, which fits perfectly with my denial of free will.
posted by edd at 12:06 AM on June 29, 2009

Also, this:

I believe I choose. I believe that I intend.

This is not a good response to St. Rawman. Your beliefs are not statements about the world, they are statements about yourself. It will always be true that you believe you choose. But when you want to argue about your beliefs with someone, they are not sufficient to demonstrate anything--your only choice is to keep quiet. Unless you've got something more to offer, St. Rawman clearly has the upper hand in that argument.
posted by nasreddin at 12:07 AM on June 29, 2009

(Schopenhauer, like Hume et al, thought that it makes sense to say both that we have free will and that our decisions are necessitated by forces that we do not control.)

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Schopenhauer doesn't think we have free will in the conventional sense--in the sense that Joe Subject can freely pick Door #1 or Door #2 and so can Jane Subject. He thinks that will acts through us and is not determined, but we are not distinct individuals with distinct wills--there is only one primal Will that corresponds to Kant's noumenon.

As for the rest, I'm pretty much in agreement with you.
posted by nasreddin at 12:10 AM on June 29, 2009

"Of course you will convict me." He smiled at us through the bars. "It isn't as if you have a choice in the matter, the same way I had no choice about ... examining ... all those people."

None of the other journalists had known this was coming. Nobody connected the dots between the eleven missing people. A lot of folks just up and leave and, if there's a story in it, it's not one that will sell papers. But once someone caught a slipup on the police scanner, here we were, late night, aching eyeballs and hastily-applied hairspray. What was more eerie: the careful dissection and labeling of his victims or the neat little bundle of press statements he had prepared in advance? The calm, relaxed smile of someone who has no anxieties over his decisions?

"It's not destiny, it wasn't foreordained at the time of the Big Bang. Many of the events that led up to my reading the article were just chance, no predestination. But when I read it, why, I knew right then what would come later. The only difference between me and a leaf in a creek is that a leaf in a creek does not know it is, and does not seek to make little explanations and excuses for why it spins and dives and is dashed against the rocks. That is all."

He would answer no more questions; thus the "No Free Will Killer" was born. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess the jokes, just a journalist: the future held both potential lynch mobs and Free Willy! picket signs. What we didn't know was just how many would take up his mantle. If we were just automatons, wound up to march about the board and knock one another over, maybe it didn't matter anyway.

When they took the bandages off in the hospital and asked me why I didn't do anything when one of Willy's Disciples carved me up and, just by luck, had been shot before he finished the job, I was afraid to tell them. "I froze," I said. It's even a little true. Willy himself just smiled that pat little smile at me and nodded right before they gassed him, and I guess he knew that was coming, too. Knew enough that a posthumous note arrived at the paper for me:
True to the six questions of journalism, you're probably wondering "how many" will be inspired by my example. Remember, not having free will doesn't mean that just any old thing can be predicted. Realizing your situation doesn't make you suddenly omniscient.

But I think it'll be a lot.
posted by adipocere at 12:11 AM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

nasreddin: It doesn't have anything to do with Kant, in fact I've never even read him. I would say it's a transcendent question because the mind is an instrument for dealing with determinism and it is also aware of randomness (and you might say it's also an instrument for dealing with randomness insofar as it knows to ignore it and distill determinism from the mixed environment). However, if everything is determinism and randomness, then nothing should have significance to my mind (or anyone's) as the mind would be simply a part of the larger determinism of the world.

Why would this be true? This is just like the idiotic creationist argument that evolution makes everything meaningless. Why would things "lose meaning"? They have meaning as long as you feel they're meaningful.

Because an event in a deterministic system cannot be evil or bad. If you can imagine a small universe consisting of two dominoes, and one domino may either fall or not fall based on random chance, and if it were to fall, it would push over the other one. If my mind is the second domino, why should I feel that it's an evil or cruel fate that the first one should fall and bring on my demise? If I were to have a temporary hallucination that makes it seem like fall of my mind-domino is a terrible thing, and then I were to examine this thought at a later time in a calmer frame of mind, would I not see it as a hallucination?

Now, if you take an multiply the number of dominoes to near infinity, how does the number of them changes anything?
posted by rainy at 12:11 AM on June 29, 2009

ergh, take an = take and
posted by rainy at 12:12 AM on June 29, 2009

The question "Is there free will at all?" arises when you generalize to the point where the constraints are no longer perceived by the agent--say, aspects of your personality that lead you to do one thing rather than another, or the physical processes that underlie/correspond to/are what we call "decisions." It seems to me, at least prima facie, that when the discussion reaches this point, the concept of "free will" loses most of its interest. It would be to say that "free will" is not a physical or scientific concept, it's an ethical and political concept.

I don't object to any of this at all. But the fpp is about free will in this sense, rather than the 'interesting' sense.
posted by empath at 12:17 AM on June 29, 2009

Anyway, I guess what I am trying to say is:

If you want free will, carry dice.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:17 AM on June 29, 2009

Because an event in a deterministic system cannot be evil or bad. If you can imagine a small universe consisting of two dominoes, and one domino may either fall or not fall based on random chance, and if it were to fall, it would push over the other one. If my mind is the second domino, why should I feel that it's an evil or cruel fate that the first one should fall and bring on my demise? If I were to have a temporary hallucination that makes it seem like fall of my mind-domino is a terrible thing, and then I were to examine this thought at a later time in a calmer frame of mind, would I not see it as a hallucination?

Well, I do think talk of evil and badness in that sense is pretty nonsensical. But you could still be a utilitarian, for instance, and remain consistent.
posted by nasreddin at 12:19 AM on June 29, 2009

Because an event in a deterministic system cannot be evil or bad.

And?
posted by empath at 12:19 AM on June 29, 2009

If you want free will, carry dice.

Free will is not random behavior.
posted by empath at 12:20 AM on June 29, 2009

In fact, rainy, that realization is what many spiritual traditions call "enlightenment."
posted by nasreddin at 12:20 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

LogicalDash: you couldn't want free will because then, who would it be who wants it? Some time ago, people only thought of animals and plants as separate entities. Now we think of them as a biosphere system. If they don't have a free will, they're more akin to parts of a watch. In the same way, if you wanted free will, without having one, it'd be more accurate to say that the larger system wants one of its parts to have free will. (Assuming anyone wanted anything).
posted by rainy at 12:25 AM on June 29, 2009

If I say I chose to make it, St. Rawman asks me how I chose—what's the seat of my free will? Obviously, the implication goes, if I believe in free will, I've left the realm of the material, as there's no way to prove with materialist science a non-material cause. I might as well believe that magic fairies guided my hand, and we're back to determinism, only imaginary.

I think that is somewhat mixed up. The concept you seem to have of determinism is that it is like an external force preventing you from choosing one of the options, forcing you against your will to choose one which you didn't want to choose. You seem to think that not having "free will" means that your actual will is removed from you. That is not what determinism necessarily implies. You still make the choice. It's just that the choice you make is dependent on the situation in your brain at the time, meaning it was predetermined. Think about it, why are you eating a sandwich in the first place? Because you are an animal which requires food. Why sandwiches? Because you live in a culture where sandwiches are a snack food. Finally, why one filling over another? There is a reason for that too, whether you believe it or not. It is probably subconscious and depends on your personality, but it is dependent, like every other action you take, on the preexisting state of the universe, and on your own pre-existing instincts, experiences and learning. E.g. are you a person who likes trying new things? Then you might be more likely to try a sandwich filling you've never had, or haven't had as often. Are you a person who likes familiarity? Then you might choose the sandwich you're enjoyed the most in the past. Does your body need a quick hit of energy? Then you might subconsciously choose the sandwich filling with the most sugar in it. Etc. Or you might say to yourself, "I'm not a creature of habit, I'm going to choose completely at random," and do that - but your decision to choose at random is again based on a previous conception you have of yourself as being someone who likes to sometimes do things at random. If you understand the relative strengths of the different factors which go into your choice, you can see that the strongest consideration will always win. When making decisions your brain weighs up the potential benefits of each course, and you choose the one which you perceive as having the most benefit, e.g. because it is likely to give you the most pleasure, or give you the most novel experience etc. I'm sure I've heard that the brain counts up almost mathematically using neurons the weight of each choice, adding more neurons to each side as each factor for and against is considered, and then simply makes the choice with the highest number of neurons on its side. We don't have to go into the action of subatomic particles. It was my impression that resorting to the unpredictable behaviour of subatomic particles was what people did when they wanted to argue for free will and unpredictability rather than for determinism.

Again, saying there is no free will does not mean you cannot make the choice you genuinely decide to make. You are still free to take the course which appeals to you most, or even take the course which appeals to you least, out of perversity, and to demonstrate to yourself that you can do that if you want. It just means that you make the choice you make because of who you are, and because of what you are, and because of what you have thought in the past, and felt in the past, and learned in the past.

If you decide to try to attempt a completely random choice free from reasoning, well, I suppose that is when you have to get down to the mechanistic level. But being able to choose randomly doesn't mean you have actually have free will either, because by choosing randomly you are deliberately removing will from the equation altogether - your will has no role to play in such a random decision, by definition. So arguments about whether or not our brains can do things completely spontaneously and randomly don't really have anything to do with the question of whether we have free will, because if a decision truly is random, then no will at all is involved, meaning we did not choose the outcome and demonstrate that we have free will, and if it isn't random, then mustn't it be deterministic?
posted by haines at 12:27 AM on June 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

nasreddin: englightenment is transcendence of mind, and if you remember, I said that this is a transcendent question. One of the most remarkable features of the mind is that it can recognize some questions as being transcendent to itself! That's like Baron Munhousen saying: "No, I can't pull myself out of a puddle by pulling on my hair."
posted by rainy at 12:28 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

But we know that elementary particles behave non-deterministically, i.e. randomly.

I could be wrong about this, I'm not a physicist, but I've tried to read up on this specific point and it appears to me that this isn't a conclusion that has been reached. The Bell's Theorem stuff that's usually cited as the evidence of non-determinism seems to be focused on examining whether quantum physics could be equivalent to or similar to classical physics in some very specific ways - that's the talk of "locality" and "realism" et cetera - as opposed to examining determinism in general.

I think that when talking about this some people may have used the term "non-deterministic" as shorthand for "not similar to classical physics", which wouldn't be the same thing as saying "we have proof that quantum phenomena cannot operate through any pre-determined mechanism whatsoever and therefore quantum-level behavior undetermined". So I think the jury's still out, as it were, over whether the events that occur in the universe are entirely determined or partly undetermined.
posted by XMLicious at 12:39 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: oh, and I could not be utilitarian and maintain consistence with other things I said because then, what is of utility to who? There are no real boundary between the deterministic mind and deterministic surroundings. Utilitarianism only makes sense as a servant of something which is not utilitarian, otherwise it would be "it's servants all the way down (or rather up)".
posted by rainy at 12:40 AM on June 29, 2009

Don't the implications of a strict determinist viewpoint go rather beyond simply there being no free, will? It would seem to me to deny the existence of consciousness itself; we're no more conscious than a clock can be said to be conscious. We're not actually considering whether free will exists, we're simply going through the motions.

How are we any different than pure automaton if we have no more independent thought or will than a department store mannequin?
posted by Justinian at 12:44 AM on June 29, 2009

XMLicious: yes, that's true. My idea is that I first take care of possibility of a fully deterministic system, then I try to take care of the contrary argument that quantum effects introduce randomness. If it's either one of these, or combination of them, then duality of good/bad does not work at all. If there is free will, then it transcends both determinism and randomness and it gets a privilege of being able to choose good or bad, or neutral. If we don't transcend those two things than we don't get any privileges but things are much simpler (maybe too much) :-).
posted by rainy at 12:46 AM on June 29, 2009

Justinian: naturally, no free will (and such capability), no consciousness. That seems pretty straight-cut to me.
posted by rainy at 12:48 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

rainy, it sounds like you want free will to be a transcendent question because you would feel uncomfortable if it were not. But if we build all our "meaning" on something that may or may not be true, we're not much better off. Actually, we're about as reasonable as the Heaven's Gate cult. (It may or may not happen that the comet will bring us to heaven, or the world will end in 2012, or whatever). I'd say the task has to be to work out a notion of meaning and value that doesn't require you to constantly be covering your eyes.

How are we any different than pure automaton if we have no more independent thought or will than a department store mannequin?

We display more complex behavior, and that's good enough for me. A fancy robot would work too.
posted by nasreddin at 12:52 AM on June 29, 2009

t would seem to me to deny the existence of consciousness itself; we're no more conscious than a clock can be said to be conscious.

I think the subjective experience of consciousness is undeniable. The question is whether the feeling of being a conscious mind in control of ones own actions reflects reality.
posted by empath at 12:54 AM on June 29, 2009

Anyway, you haven't proven that free will has any connection to value either. Suppose I can choose. Where does the goodness or evilness of my choice come from, and how would it be different from a deterministic world?
posted by nasreddin at 12:54 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: not at all, if it were not a transcendent question, I'd be 100% fine with that. I'm sure that twisting my understanding in order to be "much better off", as you say, would end up having the opposite effect. I think you're asking your mind to answer transcendent questions for you because you're lazy. If it does that for you, then you don't have to. Heaven's Gate cult, I'm guessing, made the mistake of a very different kind, but that does not mean that as long as I avoid what I see as your mistake, I will automatically fall into their mistake. In a way their approach may be even somewhat similar to yours - they relied on the comet to take them somewhere nice, you rely on your mind to figure things out for you where it has no bearing. I just don't see that as covering my eyes...
posted by rainy at 1:01 AM on June 29, 2009

Determinism starts to make alot more sense when you realize that we humans are, like all other animals, really just very complicated organic machines instead of Special Beings that are inhabited by invisible ghosts who happen to be the "real" us.
posted by Avenger at 1:02 AM on June 29, 2009

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Schopenhauer doesn't think we have free will in the conventional sense--in the sense that Joe Subject can freely pick Door #1 or Door #2 and so can Jane Subject. He thinks that will acts through us and is not determined, but we are not distinct individuals with distinct wills--there is only one primal Will that corresponds to Kant's noumenon.

Yep, though for those keeping score I think it's important to note that since, according to Schopenhauer, each subject is (a phenomenal manifestation of) "the will," it makes sense for him to say, as he does, that each of us has our "own will" (i.e. the will insofar as it is manifest as a particular subject) in addition to being a conduit of the universal will. (Or maybe not, it's been like eight years since I read Schopenhauer.)

But the fpp is about free will in this sense, rather than the 'interesting' sense.

Not entirely:

In concluding Dr Conway said that he believed he did have freewill. Holding up a piece of chalk, he said he felt he could choose whether or not he would drop it or continue to hold it. His theorem he said leads him to accept that the universe is teeming with freewill. He also said that while he did not have any proof for it, he believed that the cumulative freewill of particles is the source of his freewill as a person.

I think this little human-interest flourish is symptomatic of a problem, if not with his argument, at least with his rhetoric; even if he's not equivocating on "free will," as he claims he's not, the interest of his argument depends on his seeming to equivocate. I think this is why, for instance, he keeps saying that particles "decide" which spin to have in a particular direction. If his argument is just that macroscopic non-determinism (the observer "deciding" which direction to measure from) implies microscopic non-determinism (the particle "deciding" which spin to have in that direction)...well, la-di-da. The rhetorical image of a world "teeming with freewill" is the real hook, and that image can only arise if non-determinism (the boring sense of free will) gets mistaken for the ability to choose (the interesting sense).
posted by DaDaDaDave at 1:03 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: Listen to yourself, how can a transcendent idea can be proved to the mind steeped in determinism, not much more than a glorified abacus?
posted by rainy at 1:04 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.

But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.

Susan Blackmore

I think the free/determined question can be asked in a lot of different contexts, and you can get different answers depending on how the question is asked. What she's talking about here totally ignores quantum mechanics and physical determinism and only looks at the internal operation of the mind, and even there, the question of consciousness and free will is not really an easy one to untangle.

It really all depends on how you define the terms, and almost all the terms involved are notoriously tricky to define.
posted by empath at 1:06 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

rainy, I'm not sure what you mean by "transcendent idea" anymore. If you're talking Kant, I answered that above. If you think it's something mystical...well, I guess I can't argue on that level, since that's a matter of your personal beliefs.
posted by nasreddin at 1:09 AM on June 29, 2009

not much more than a glorified abacus?

Who said the mind was not much more than a glorified abacus? An abacus can't even operate without a mind.

But even if you meant a complicated 'clockwork' or 'computer', the mind is VASTLY more complicated than a clockwork, or computer. But even a computer which is many many times less complicated than a human can appear to have free will in many contexts.
posted by empath at 1:12 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: Really a very simple concept, here is a paste from one of my posts:

I would say it's a transcendent question because the mind is an instrument for dealing with determinism and it is also aware of randomness (and you might say it's also an instrument for dealing with randomness insofar as it knows to ignore it and distill determinism from the mixed environment). However, if everything is determinism and randomness, then nothing should have significance to my mind (or anyone's) as the mind would be simply a part of the larger determinism of the world.

To expand: anything outside of reach of the analytical mind, which in itself is an instrument for dealing with determinism.

I don't know whether to call it mystical. Do you call anything outside of determinism, "mystical"? Can you give an example of something that is outside of determinism or randomness, can't be dismissed as mystical, and isn't at the core of what we've been discussing?
posted by rainy at 1:16 AM on June 29, 2009

empath: I happen to have much more respect for the term "glorified" than you do :-). A computer is meant, and is capable of, dealing with deterministic systems. It may appear to have free will in many cases. But that's a question of your mind's capacity to model operations of the computer, not a question of nature of the computer. In exactly the same way, this argument can be applied to the mind.
posted by rainy at 1:22 AM on June 29, 2009

According to Benjamin Libet, we only have free won't.

Actually free will is straightforward: an act is free if it was causally determined by the self. I leave the nature of the self as an exercise for readers.
posted by Phanx at 1:22 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Phanx: the space on the margins of Metafilter is too small to determine the nature of the self, therefore I'm leaving it as an exercise for nasreddin!
posted by rainy at 1:27 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the subjective experience of consciousness is undeniable. The question is whether the feeling of being a conscious mind in control of ones own actions reflects reality.

If you have the subjective experience of consciousness, isn't that ipso facto proof that you are conscious? Are you positing that our minds are just sort of along for the ride like passive observers and are inventing rationale for our predetermined actions on the fly? Like people whose corpus callosum have been severed.
posted by Justinian at 1:36 AM on June 29, 2009

That is in fact what I'm arguing. That consciousness is an observer.
posted by empath at 1:56 AM on June 29, 2009

So I guess there's no limit to the speed of information transfer, eh?
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:15 AM on June 29, 2009

What is often missing is a distinction between "deterministic" and "predictable". A deterministic system can still be perfectly unpredictable and, in fact, almost always will be. There is only a small subset of our existence that can be predicted, and it will always be true because the natural world is a chaotic system. To predict the evolution of a chaotic system, one needs to know the starting conditions precisely, else the prediction will be horribly wrong over time and getting worse as it evolves. Since there are so many more irrational numbers than rational numbers, most starting conditions are represented by unrepresentable numbers. So I can't ever "know" the starting conditions. So I can't ever predict what will happen in practice, even if I can theoretically.

And isn't predictivity the issue? I mean, we can't really even define free will and that's because it's a slippery notion. Hence the dodge into randomness. But psychologically, we just want to believe that we aren't behaving predictably, because subjectively that's what we call free will feels like.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:22 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Bizarre that no one has linked Conway and Kochen's paper.

I think it's interesting that this proof applies to particles with spin ħ. The commonest fundamental particles (the proton, neutron, and electron) all have spin ħ/2, and so this theorem does not immediately apply to them. Photons have spin ħ, but a real photon can't have spin projection zero, so the theorem doesn't work for photons either. So one interpretation of the theorem is that it proves some species of atoms have free will, but their constituents may just be behaving randomly.

Heh.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 3:34 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a recent (re)convert to nondualism -
posted by Samuel Farrow at 3:57 AM on June 29, 2009

empath That's complete nonsense. There's been open debate over the existence of free will for thousands of years. Conventionally, we all behave as if free will exists, even if we don't believe it does, its very difficult to live any other way.

Certainly you are right in that people say they don't believe in free will, and perhaps they really believe that they do not; it is impossible for anyone else to know. Much as you may accept for practical purposes that I have free will, I will accept for practical purposes that you are sincere in saying that you believe that you do not. People argue that point often and sometimes do it well, and they are not considered mentally ill; but they argue it with others who could not actually believe or disbelieve them, and whose belief one way or the other would not matter if they did not have free will. This is what I mean by the act of making the argument defeating the argument. We can't argue this, not really, unless we have free will.

As to "conventionally we all behave" ... well, everyone is entitled to have beliefs on which you do not act, it's part and parcel of living in a society. But what if you did behave as though your own, or others', free will did not exist? What if you did go through that difficulty of living that way? It's hard to relate to what that would be like, but I suspect near-catatonic depression on the one hand, or the sociopathy of a Grand Theft Auto player-character on the other.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:20 AM on June 29, 2009

Am I the only one noticing that most of the arguments against determinism are line-for-line identical to Christian arguments against atheism?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:30 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, haines.

I have always thought determinism was intriguing and logical than the 'atheism'/free will argument, but the way it was being framed in many of the comments was genuinely puzzling me, as I had always considered it the way haines described.

This may be why I was surprised, on coming in here, to see so many people apparently defending the free will camp. And, noting the lack of replies to haines' comment, I'm thinking there's not much that can be effectively argued against.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 5:17 AM on June 29, 2009

But this hand-waves past an important point: who is "you"? The halting problem states that you can't make a machine such that can determine the halting status of every single machine; but any given machine is a different story. We can certainly enumerate most of the halting and non-halting machines.

Uh, no.

Uh, yes. Give me just about any program and I can tell you whether or not it will halt. Usually this will be very trivial, but sometimes it will be more complicated and sometimes I will be stumped and have to give up.

Moreover, I would bet that I could design a program that printed off a list of machines, and judgments like "halt" and "not halt". Whenever this program printed a judgment, it would be provably correct; it would not print out every single machine, but it could easily print judgments about (a number of machines that is asymptotically more than) 50% of all Turing machines. (in fact, for a machine encoding such that Chaitin's constant is > 0.5, there exists an N such that the "simulate for N steps" machine can produce judgments about >50% of machines. So it's not even hard to design this machine.)

The halting problem is about the general case. But unless you pick your specific cases very carefully, they are usually quite easy to solve. Otherwise computer science would be in deep doo-doo.

Sorry for the derail.
posted by goingonit at 5:19 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the kind of thread I wish I had seen about 80 comments sooner.

As it is, I'll content myself with reminding everyone that Conway invented the Game of Life (not Milton Bradley's), and with it the whole field of cellular automata.
posted by JHarris at 6:04 AM on June 29, 2009

Oh, it is that Dr. Conway - that had occurred to me but I was mislead by the fact that the described lecture was happening at the University of Auckland.
posted by XMLicious at 6:08 AM on June 29, 2009

Yes the universe may very well be deterministic, and it may well not be, but let's leave that apart from any religious beliefs in physics (or for that matter, as nasreddin pointed out, metaphysics). Physics ≠ Reality. Maps ≠ Territory.
posted by symbollocks at 6:15 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thinking about the things said in this thread and in other discussions of free will I've participated in: I suppose that besides judgment and random selection from amongst various options you could say that a third factor determining the outcome of any given choice is for the person making the choice to have an inherent affinity for one of the options; for one option to be selected because it somehow resonates with the chooser's nature or identity.

Perhaps that's the central part of it - a desire to believe that the choices we make belong to us in some fundamental way, or some transcendent way, and that the choices themselves sort of have our fingerprints on them. So that another with the same judgment and who happened to make the same roll of the dice would not make the same choice.

I'm realizing just now that this might be the viewpoint of some people I've encountered who insist that free will is entirely compatible with complete determinism and say things like, "Even if the choices you make were predestined since the beginning of time, it's still you who is making the choices."

That seems like an interesting notion and I'll have to think more about whether it answers the instinctual feeling of what free will would be. But my first impression is that even if it does "count" as free will it reduces to another form of judgment and hence would be compatible with both deterministic and non-deterministic metaphysics.
posted by XMLicious at 6:42 AM on June 29, 2009

Maybe a clearer way of looking at this is to say that analytical mind would not have an illusion of having free will if it existed in a deterministic/random world. It would operate on an algorithm of three steps: 1) calculate best course of action 2) if not enough information, keep looking for it 3) if still not enough information, make a random choice. It's not clear where it would get an illusion that it has free will. It would never hesitate, because even choosing which algorithm to use would be done by yet another algorithm. However, if it is free will that "runs" the analytical mind, then the analytical mind could mistake itself for free will when it's running in an autonomous fashion. So, it stands to reason that if free will manifests itself rarely then the analytical mind would only be familiar with deterministic/random parts of the world. The whole argument only arises out of some intermixing of free will and deterministic mind, and then the analytical mind would tend to prefer to think that everything is deterministic/random because that makes its algorithms more reliable, which is its main concern.
posted by rainy at 6:45 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

But we know that elementary particles behave non-deterministically, i.e. randomly.

You need to read Feynman's QED. It's not that they're random. It's just that, well, figure out every possible thing that a particle can do, and that's what it does.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:57 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

So how do you then account for the fact you wrote that comment, if you didn't choose to do so?

How do you account for the fact that a rock rolls down hill if it didn't choose to do so?

Come now, you're simply ignoring the actual question.

Absent human agency, the rock rolls down the hill precisely in accordance with the laws of physics - deterministically.

You however "choose" to write specific words. You could as easily choose to write nothing, or a slightly different posting. There's no evidence at all that this "choice" is at all deterministic, nor that it's random. From the

There is conversely no evidence that what you "choose" to write is deterministic, nor that it is random.

Perhaps it is! Perhaps you're right that there's no free will. But to contrast two actions, one which does not involve free will (if it in fact exists) and one that does, and then say, "They are the same," simply begs the question.

I'll certainly bet you any amount that you, in practice, act as though you and the other people around you have some degree of free will. You for example will try to convince other people of the truth of your words in order to influence their actions.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:08 AM on June 29, 2009

it's an issue because it has bearing on determining what is good and what is not good. If there is no free will, then nothing is good or not-good.

This.

Do the particles feel remorse after a bad choice? What about guilt? What drives their decision-making process? Do they have a conscience? Are they hedonistic? Do they have individual personalities and temperaments? Do they put a lot of thought into their choices, or do they just not care?

Do they find all this anthropomorphism as ridiculous as I do?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:27 AM on June 29, 2009

rainy, it seems to me that some of these rules you're coming up with are pretty contrived. For example, It would never hesitate, because even choosing which algorithm to use would be done by yet another algorithm. That doesn't make sense to me because I can think of a whole bunch of reasons to hesitate within algorithms themselves, even without examining whether your talk of algorithms means what you think it.

The entire "without free will human minds could only be three-step algorithm processing machines" bit seems like a caricature of a robot or computer and is so ridiculously simplistic and reductionist that I have difficulty believing you approached it with any seriousness at all. It all just looks like a big strawman erected for the purpose of knocking it down to prove some other point.

(Then again, I'm a software developer, so possibly from your perspective it doesn't look like a simplistic model.)

lupus_yonderboy, empath's response to you made sense to me. In your original challenge you appeared to simply be asserting that him writing such a comment necessarily and unquestionably would be the product of free will but you didn't say anything about how it would be distinguished from a non-free-will decision; you simply asserted that the action of commenting is exclusively a product of free will.

So he responded by saying that in the mechanism the human mind would be if the universe were completely deterministic, the series of events that would lead to someone making a comment would be like rocks rolling down a hill, a series of actuations that would result in the same behavior. He's not begging the question, he's answering it. You have to provide some reasoning why determined choices would be detectably different, you can't just generally assert that they would be.
posted by XMLicious at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's pretty pointless. No-one can adequately define free will, so there will always be gaps in the armor of any argument for or against it - it's not a "god of the gaps" thing - it's a "You didn't think this through all the way" thing.

Part of the issue is that this is, at its core, an epistemology problem. What is Free Will? Any definition you pick is probably going to have irreconcilable problems, and if it doesn't, there's your doctoral thesis and tenure fast-track, right there.

We don't even know what we don't know, about randomness and determinacy, at a mathematical level. Take this simple test: design a self-contained algorithm to run on a Turing Machine that will compute a purely random number. Can't do it. Now, come up with a self-contained algorithm that will tell you if another program will finish or run forever in an endless loop, just by looking at the inputs. Can't do that, either. So, in computational math, nothing is truly random, but you can't always predict outcomes by looking at the input. Math does this on purpose to hurt your head.

Now, on top of the Philosophical and Mathematical turd-cake, layer on thick slatherings of consciousness theory, neurology and behavioral psychology, all of which bickers incessantly with each other. On top of that, we plop a big, steaming dollop of quantum mechanics, which is fundamentally anti-intuitive (counter-intuitive isn't strong enough a term) and factionalized more than modern Marxism, with a number of possible models all having very intelligent people snarling at each other.

So, you have everyone not understanding anything with any degree of certainty, except that the other bozo who believes something different is =sooo= wrong.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:44 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

What is Free Will? Any definition you pick is probably going to have irreconcilable problems, and if it doesn't, there's your doctoral thesis and tenure fast-track, right there.

Look, the fact that it's impossible to create a non-contradictory definition for the term "square circle" doesn't mean that square circles exist in a transcendent realm of undecidability. It means square circles don't exist.
posted by nasreddin at 7:55 AM on June 29, 2009

"Look, the fact that it's impossible to create a non-contradictory definition..."

Beg the question, much?
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:09 AM on June 29, 2009

Beg the question, much?

What? I was referring to your point that "Any definition you pick is probably going to have irreconcilable problems." If that wasn't what you meant, what did you mean?
posted by nasreddin at 8:16 AM on June 29, 2009

XMLicious: I honestly don't get what you're saying. If it's in the middle of an algorithm, it would not be really hesitation. If you picture hesitation as walking back and forth with a conflicted countenance, then finally darting off in some direction, then, in the middle of an algorithm, you could have this behaviour modeled as part of the algorithm. But it would just be a model of outward appearance of hesitation. In the same way, there's a slew of things that would not and should not exists in a deterministic system, nor even illusion of these things should exists there - intent, anticipation, fear of particular outcome, preference between death and life, idea of, or an illusion of freedom or slavery. It's as if a toy train was controlled from a circuit located in another toy train, but would risk its existence in an attempt to acquire a circuit that'd control its movement from inside its own locomotive, while at the same time assigning great significance to its life. It's not that this doesn't make sense, it's just that I can't even imagine a set of assumptions, however far-fetched that would make it possible for this to begin making any sort of sense.

I'm also a developer, so that's not the source of disagreement.. Maybe I'm not a good enough developer and I don't work with sufficiently advanced algorithms? Heh.
posted by rainy at 8:18 AM on June 29, 2009

In the same way, there's a slew of things that would not and should not exists in a deterministic system, nor even illusion of these things should exists there - intent, anticipation, fear of particular outcome, preference between death and life, idea of, or an illusion of freedom or slavery

Why wouldn't there be an illusion of these things? We shouldn't even talk about it as an illusion: it's more like "subjectively experienced, this is what this collection of deterministic facts about the world looks like."
posted by nasreddin at 8:21 AM on June 29, 2009

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.—Spinoza to G. H. Schalle
posted by No Robots at 8:23 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: how would a deterministic system develop an illusion of having fear? How would it develop illusion of having a preference of life or death? How would it develop an illusion of identity? Of separation from the whole of deterministic universe? Why would it need such illusions if it could do all the same things that it does without them? Moreover, preference for truth over untruth would also be an illusion. An argument with the stated purpose of getting closer to truth would then be conscious decision to indulge in an illusion. So, as you argue here on MeFi, you at the same time believe that it does not matter if we get closer to truth in the course of the argument or not? Then it's a bit pointless, but your point is that your preference for something purposeful over pointless is also an illusion and you're aware of that?
posted by rainy at 8:47 AM on June 29, 2009

Take Atheism. I'm an atheist, I don't believe in the existence of a god, but I want to think it through to make sure this is a rational belief.

Simple, right? Sure! Let's begin by defining "god."

God - A god is a powerful being who is worshiped by people and has temples erected to them.

Julius Ceasar was a god who was powerful, had temples and was worshipped by people after his death (by order of Augustus.)

Therefore, Atheism is clearly false. Case closed, amirite?

Or maybe there are more angles to this god thing that I hadn't considered... and why was I an atheist in the first place? Maybe there are two... or more... definitions that depend on each other and need to be carefully negotiated for a rational explanation of the argument either way?

This is what we're dealing with, on a much more convoluted and colossal scale... Occam's razor is blunt from over-use, and logical fallacies are very easy to stumble into.

"Begging the question" is a logical fallacy where you start out from the conclusion, which means you have to fudge things until they fit.

"A definition for free will doesn't exist because because there's no free will!"
"Bob's my character reference, he's trustworthy because I can vouch for him."

That doesn't work, here.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:51 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

nasreddin: how would a deterministic system develop an illusion of having fear? How would it develop illusion of having a preference of life or death? How would it develop an illusion of identity? Of separation from the whole of deterministic universe? Why would it need such illusions if it could do all the same things that it does without them? Moreover, preference for truth over untruth would also be an illusion. An argument with the stated purpose of getting closer to truth would then be conscious decision to indulge in an illusion. So, as you argue here on MeFi, you at the same time believe that it does not matter if we get closer to truth in the course of the argument or not? Then it's a bit pointless, but your point is that your preference for something purposeful over pointless is also an illusion and you're aware of that?

You're attributing all sorts of things to a deterministic system that are not a priori necessary. The deterministic system doesn't have a teleology, so by definition there's no coherent way of asking why it would do things one way and not another, or "need" one thing and not another. It is enough to observe that our subjective experience is such-and-such to determine that there is room for such-and-such within a deterministic system.

I don't believe in "truth," really, and I see these kinds of arguments mostly as a fun abstract exercise--but my preference is not an "illusion," because it is indisputably certain that I do experience it. I don't see what "illusion" could even mean in this context.
posted by nasreddin at 8:57 AM on June 29, 2009

"A definition for free will doesn't exist because because there's no free will!"

That's not how philosophy works. You don't come up with an arbitrary definition and then throw up your hands when you get weird results. Typically you generate a series of premises leading to a conclusion. Thus:

P1. A god is someone who is worshipped and has temples erected to him.
P2. Julius Caesar was worshipped and had temples erected to him.
P3. Julius Caesar was a god.
.: There is at least one god.

At this point you would offer your argument to the other person. The other person would say: premise 1 is false, divinity implies immortality, powers, and whatnot. The argument would then fail. My argument against free will takes the following form:

P1. For free will to exist, it must satisfy the following requirements:
a) I must be able to choose between two options without constraint.
b) My act of choosing must have a meaningful effect in the real world. (I choose door 1, my hand moves towards the doorknob.)
P2. If determinism is true, condition a remains unsatisfied.
P3. If determinism is true, free will does not exist.
P4. If determinism is false (in the sense of fundamental randomness of some kind), condition b remains unsatisfied.
P5. If determinism is false, free will does not exist.
.: Free will does not exist.

Now, you are free to disagree with any given premise, but there's no begging the question here.
posted by nasreddin at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2009

how would a deterministic system develop an illusion of having fear?

Well, just look at the replicants in blade runner. They are morally/ethically equivalent to human beings, in nearly every way that matters, despite the fact that all of their behaviors are programmed.
posted by empath at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin, just for giggles:

The flaw in your argument is the false dilemma. It may be that some things are determined and others are not.
posted by empath at 9:15 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: but you asked me why those things I listed couldn't be manifested as illusions in a deterministic system. "Fun abstract exercise" - but in a deterministic system you're already determined to have fun or not to have it. The thing is, you start out with the axiom that everything is deterministic and if certain things don't make sense in a deterministic, they must be an illusion. What if you start with an axiom that it's unknown whether the universe is deterministic or not? To me it seems like a bizarre obsession with the analytical mind. Or rather a bizarre obsession of analytical mind with itself. If you sit down and meditate for a few hours, it's pretty apparent that there is consciousness even when analytical mind stops. You might say that it's an awkward manifest of the deterministic mind stalling and imagining things, but that's again an obsessive need of the mind to hammer everything in subservience to itself - which is again its natural instinct because it simplifies the processing of outside world and makes it more efficient. But if that stops then internal contradictions of the mind's model of the world disappear. If a calculator cannot parse fugues of bach it's not a problem with the fugues, or the calculator, it's just a case of using a tool for the wrong job.
posted by rainy at 9:16 AM on June 29, 2009

The flaw in your argument is the false dilemma. It may be that some things are determined and others are not.

Fine, substitute "determinism is (true/false) in case A at time T." The point is that you don't get free will in either case, whether or not determinism is true.
posted by nasreddin at 9:18 AM on June 29, 2009

No it may be that the mind is not determined, but the action of the body is.

Ie, it may be that the decision was not determined, but the consequences of the decision are.
posted by empath at 9:19 AM on June 29, 2009

empath: It would appear they're not fully deterministic, or the ethical equivalence is only outward.

nasreddin: wait, if you don't believe in "truth", then you don't believe that it is "truth" that universe is deterministic, nor do you believe that "universe is deterministic" is closer to truth than statement "it is not". Then it appears I had a wrong impression about your position!
posted by rainy at 9:20 AM on June 29, 2009

Rainy, if what you're getting at is that there's something wrong with me for wanting to think about these questions, then there's no point in discussing anything with you.
posted by nasreddin at 9:22 AM on June 29, 2009

I'm repeating myself, but no-one seems to have addressed my question.

How would you know if you didn't have free will?

What is the objective test for free will?

If there is no objective test, does the term have any meaning?
posted by unSane at 9:23 AM on June 29, 2009

Ie, it may be that the decision was not determined, but the consequences of the decision are.

If by "not determined" you mean "random," then the argument holds. If you mean "chosen," then you're begging the question.

nasreddin: wait, if you don't believe in "truth", then you don't believe that it is "truth" that universe is deterministic, nor do you believe that "universe is deterministic" is closer to truth than statement "it is not". Then it appears I had a wrong impression about your position!

I don't believe in truths but I do believe in having reasons to maintain provisional beliefs in things. I have more reasons to believe in the absence of free will than in its presence.
posted by nasreddin at 9:25 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: no, I'm saying that your position is internally contradictive, and it would only be wrong for you to want to think about these questions if the world was deterministic, and even then it would not be, in fact, wrong, because nothing would be wrong (or right). Since I think the world is not deterministic, it's perfectly fine for you to discuss these questions, in fact it's the only way for the analytical mind to introspect into its own contradictions..
posted by rainy at 9:27 AM on June 29, 2009

I'm wondering now how the axiom of choice fits in.
posted by empath at 9:28 AM on June 29, 2009

unSane: how do you tell between an appearance of thing and the real thing? There is no reliable way!
posted by rainy at 9:28 AM on June 29, 2009

I'm saying that your position is internally contradictive

How?

it would only be wrong for you to want to think about these questions if the world was deterministic

Why?
posted by nasreddin at 9:29 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: however, in a deterministic system, preference for having a more valid provisional belief in things is an illusion, too. You're just diluting the argument, you're saying that truth-lite is more palatable to the deterministic world than "tha truth". It's not. In that world, all such things would be but illusions!
posted by rainy at 9:31 AM on June 29, 2009

It's contradictive because you say that you don't believe in truth but then argue that your position is truth, or closer to truth.

it would only be wrong for you to want to think about these questions if the world was deterministic

Why?

Because you would indulge in illusions knowingly while at the same time, in the back of your head, thinking them to be true.
posted by rainy at 9:34 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: however, in a deterministic system, preference for having a more valid provisional belief in things is an illusion, too. You're just diluting the argument, you're saying that truth-lite is more palatable to the deterministic world than "tha truth". It's not. In that world, all such things would be but illusions!

How hard is this to understand? Let's say there's a robot named Steve. The robot is programmed in such a way that when it is presented with a Miley Cyrus CD and an Iron Maiden CD, it chooses the Maiden (and really, who wouldn't?). It is meaningful to call this programming a "preference"--or at least to define the word "preference" such that this programming is included. Therefore, preferences exist, because we have at least one example of a preference in action. If you want to say that "preference" shouldn't include this kind of programming, then there is no such thing as a preference, but the programming remains.
posted by nasreddin at 9:37 AM on June 29, 2009

It's contradictive because you say that you don't believe in truth but then argue that your position is truth, or closer to truth.

Prove it. I never said anything about being closer to truth.

Because you would indulge in illusions knowingly while at the same time, in the back of your head, thinking them to be true.

Why the fuck is that "wrong"? You're just being willfully obtuse.
posted by nasreddin at 9:38 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: no, that's not a preference. That's mechanical following. My question is: are you choosing to believe in the deterministic world in the same way that the robot is choosing Iron Maiden CD? In other words, do you believe that you were programmed to believe in deterministic world or do you have free will to believe in it or disbelieve in it?
posted by rainy at 9:41 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: You did say you believe in provisional opinions, but why would you choose one over the other if you did not think it to be closer to truth? Do you believe that you were programmed to have preference for one provisional opinion over the other?
posted by rainy at 9:43 AM on June 29, 2009

By "wrong" I mean internally contradictive. I think you used the word 'wrong' first, I just followed you. I don't mean it's wrong in ethical sense.
posted by rainy at 9:44 AM on June 29, 2009

In other words, do you believe that you were programmed to believe in deterministic world or do you have free will to believe in it or disbelieve in it?

I don't have free will. But I do experience the feeling of free will, or a feeling that I am tempted to call "free will." The fact that from my subjective point of view I have this experience has no bearing at all on whether free will exists or not.
posted by nasreddin at 9:45 AM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

In other words, yes, I am "programmed" to prefer not believing in free will.
posted by nasreddin at 9:46 AM on June 29, 2009

unSane: how do you tell between an appearance of thing and the real thing? There is no reliable way!

what
posted by unSane at 9:47 AM on June 29, 2009

To sum up: you believe that you were programmed to believe in deterministic world, but you have a feeling of having chosen freely to believe in it?
posted by rainy at 9:48 AM on June 29, 2009

Yep.
posted by nasreddin at 9:48 AM on June 29, 2009

unSane: sorry, I think I didn't understand your question fully, maybe nasreddin did?
posted by rainy at 9:48 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: ok then no matter what argument I use you're determined that you were already programmed to believe it to be false, and have no free will to heed my argument, no matter how convincing, then I think I don't stand a chance here ;-)
posted by rainy at 9:51 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Epicurus said the same thing. ("He who claims that everything occurs by necessity has no complaint against him who claims that everything does not occur by necessity. For he makes the very claim by necessity.") But that is effectively an example of ad hominem argumentation, and at any rate the value of an argument does not necessarily lie with its power to convince the other person.
posted by nasreddin at 10:02 AM on June 29, 2009

I guess what I never get is that, with most definitions people use for "free will," I cannot see an observable difference between universes with and without this feature. It's like philosophical debate about a distant planet in a galaxy outside of the observable universe, and on that planet there's a mountain, and in that mountain we have a cave, and deep inside that cave is a box. The box is sealed shut. It's either red or blue on the inside, but nobody knows, and we can't go there to find out.

It's kind of a big shrug for me, like "Do you think the Virgin Mary gets her period in Heaven?"
posted by adipocere at 10:04 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

No, I believe my argument is quite different. First of all, I'm not arguing a certain viewpoint but that there is internal contradiction in yours. I say two things, basically, that you either believe what you say is true or don't. Even if you don't, you either believe them to be closer to truth or you believe that there's no difference between them at all. In other words, back to where we started, that nothing is either good or bad. Or let's put it this way: if you believe that you were programmed to believe what you do, then I can ask: how can you be sure of accuracy of whatever process or entity programmed you so. Did the universe say "I better program nasreddin so that he believes the right thing" or "I better mislead him" or "It doesn't matter, I'll just program him randomly, he'll have a 50/50 chance". Then you should not argue your point because by your own logic it only has a random chance of being right or wrong. It's like flipping a coin and arguing for 3 hours whether it landed on one side or the other..
posted by rainy at 10:10 AM on June 29, 2009

No, I believe my argument is quite different. First of all, I'm not arguing a certain viewpoint but that there is internal contradiction in yours. I say two things, basically, that you either believe what you say is true or don't. Even if you don't, you either believe them to be closer to truth or you believe that there's no difference between them at all. In other words, back to where we started, that nothing is either good or bad. Or let's put it this way: if you believe that you were programmed to believe what you do, then I can ask: how can you be sure of accuracy of whatever process or entity programmed you so. Did the universe say "I better program nasreddin so that he believes the right thing" or "I better mislead him" or "It doesn't matter, I'll just program him randomly, he'll have a 50/50 chance". Then you should not argue your point because by your own logic it only has a random chance of being right or wrong. It's like flipping a coin and arguing for 3 hours whether it landed on one side or the other..

Here we go again. Stop trying to saddle me with the strawman that I believe I am "closer to truth." The only thing I am certain of is my subjective preference for what I perceive to have the force of better reasons behind it. (In other words, you're presenting me with a false dilemma.) I argue on that basis. I don't argue on the basis of "truth" or of what I think the universe supposedly programs for me.
posted by nasreddin at 10:21 AM on June 29, 2009

goingonit, I would like to see a proof of your >50% claim.

As far as I know, the majority of possible machines are so large that their running time (even for halting machines) exceeds the heat death of the universe.

(Note that I enumerate machines by their functionality, so machine A which loops until 0=1 and then does something, and machine B which loops until 0=1 and then does something else are functionally the same machine since they have the same execution path.)
posted by ymgve at 10:21 AM on June 29, 2009

I don't have free will. But I do experience the feeling of free will, or a feeling that I am tempted to call "free will." The fact that from my subjective point of view I have this experience has no bearing at all on whether free will exists or not.

I think an analogy could be made to seeing colors in response to specific electromagnetic frequencies. In a certain sense, colors aren't 'real', but we can't help experiencing them, and more particular, we experience them as a 'wheel', when in fact they're a band. Purple doesn't even exist as a particular frequency. But try imagining living in a world without purple. It's almost impossible. I think that's the way I am about free will and consciousness. I realize it's kind of a convention and mostly illusory, but it's impossible to see the world any other way.
posted by empath at 10:26 AM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:40 AM on June 29, 2009

nasreddin: 'better reasons' is just another way of saying closer to truth. How are they better then? In other words, if the world programmed your value system of what is better reasons and what is worse reasons, then we don't really know if they're better or worse because we can't start with axiom that universe is interested in starting you off on the right foot. The way I see it, in a deterministic world you would not argue passionately and get upset.

In another comment you complained about ad hominem arguments. Again, I could see if you complained that this type of argument prevents us from reaching truth, but if that does not matter to you, then what exactly is the problem with them?
posted by rainy at 10:40 AM on June 29, 2009

We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon

"Every Man and Woman is a Star."
posted by empath at 10:47 AM on June 29, 2009

Oh Jesus. I give up.
posted by nasreddin at 10:56 AM on June 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh Jesus. I give up.

Finally. rainy wins now, by sheer tenacity. Logic has nothing to do with it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:19 AM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think an analogy could be made to seeing colors in response to specific electromagnetic frequencies. In a certain sense, colors aren't 'real', but we can't help experiencing them, and more particular, we experience them as a 'wheel', when in fact they're a band. Purple doesn't even exist as a particular frequency. But try imagining living in a world without purple. It's almost impossible. I think that's the way I am about free will and consciousness. I realize it's kind of a convention and mostly illusory, but it's impossible to see the world any other way.

Wilfrid Sellars, in the ninth section of this great essay, has an interesting if problematic response to this line of reasoning that I think could be extended to apply to a lot of the discussion in this thread:

Many years ago it used to be confidently said that science has shown, for example, that physical objects aren't really colored. Later it was pointed out that if this is interpreted as the claim that the sentence "Physical objects have colors" expresses an empirical proposition which, though widely believed by common sense, has been shown by science to be false, then, of course, this claim is absurd. The idea that physical objects aren't colored can make sense only as the (misleading) expression of one aspect of a philosophical critique of the very framework of physical objects located in Space and enduring through Time. In short, "Physical objects aren't really colored" makes sense only as a clumsy expression of the idea that there are no such things as the colored physical objects of the common-sense world, where this is interpreted, not as an empirical proposition -- like "There are no nonhuman featherless bipeds" -- within the common-sense frame, but as the expression of a rejection (in some sense) of this very framework itself, in favor of another built around different, if not unrelated, categories. This rejection need not, of course, be a practical rejection. It need not, that is, carry with it a proposal to brain-wash existing populations and train them to speak differently. And, of course, as long as the existing framework is used, it will be incorrect to say -- otherwise than to make a philosophical point about the framework -- that no object is really colored, or is located in Space, or endures through Time. But, speaking as a philosopher, I am quite prepared to say that the common-sense world of physical objects in Space and Time is unreal -- that is, that there are no such things. Or, to put it less paradoxically, that in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.

Analogously, "I don't have free will," taken as "an empirical proposition [...] within the common-sense frame," is clearly false. Such a statement can only be "the (misleading) expression of one aspect of a philosophical critique" of that common-sense frame itself--a critique that would do away, not only with the concept of "free will," but with the concepts of "I," "have," experience, thought, etc etc.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:21 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

ymgve: Well, it's all dependent on the encoding, isn't it? You could come up with an encoding such that getting >50% was impossible, I could come up with an encoding such that it's trivial. And I don't see why running time is so important. Nothing in delmoi's initial idea depended on absolute running time, one way or another.

You are right tht the statement 'for a machine encoding such that Chaitin's constant is > 0.5, there exists an N such that the "simulate for N steps" machine can produce judgments about >50% of machines.' is false. Since there's an infinite number of machines, and since any N you pick will only give you a finite number of those machines, clearly no matter what N is, you don't get to 50%.

So let me amend slightly. For any given encoding with a halting probability that is computably larger than 50%, I can design a machine that will enumerate over 50% of machines along with the number of steps at which they halt. (but this machine will not run all machines for N steps; instead, it will do the standard "dovetailing" thing, running machine 1 for 1 step, then machine 2 for 1 step, then machine 1 for 2 steps, etc.). We know this to be the case since this machine will eventually enumerate all halting machines, which comprise over 50% of machines in this encoding.
posted by goingonit at 11:27 AM on June 29, 2009

I think that's exactly right.
posted by empath at 11:30 AM on June 29, 2009

Ironically, whether free will exists or not, either way, there's not much I can do about it.
posted by yeloson at 1:50 PM on June 29, 2009

And where the hell do "decisions" interact with "synapses" on the molecular level?

I don't know about any of this particular gobbledy-gook, but I'm going to picture an apple on a plate now. (Wait for it...)

There.

It was kind of a vague looking apple (because I was in a hurry), but I pictured it. It was red and a little square shaped.

Now did 'I' freely choose to alter my own brain state in a particular way when I engaged in this exercise? Did my higher-level brain function (me, consciously thinking, 'I'm gonna picture an apple,' and then doing so), trigger a downward chain of causality, culminating in my brain changing its own lower-level state to accommodate my higher-level intention to visualize an apple on a plate? Or did the synapses in my brain firing in an automated, brute-force physical response to external stimuli only lead me to mistakenly believe I had formed and carried out a conscious plan to visualize an apple?

I'd say both of these interpretations are just different ways of organizing the same information for different purposes, and that ultimately, neither is quite accurate or complete.

See, personally, I believe strong reductionism is flawed and that classical determinism inherits a lot of its flaws from strong reductionism.

In my view, causality can go both ways: upward and downward, from the higher levels of complex systems down to lower levels and back up again. Some high-level mental functions, like reflection, exert a downward causal force. So physical reality itself is even more chaotic than simple recourse to 'quantum indeterminacy' suggests, from my POV.

Beyond that, it seems to me free will just isn't the kind of problem reductionist thinking applies to because it's an inherently irreducible phenomena, more a process or a pattern than a physical phenomenon: You can't study the flight patterns of a hummingbird by pinning it down, chloroforming it, and dissecting it. At best, you'd only get an incomplete picture of what kinds of flight the hummingbird might be capable of from a study of its anatomy. Free will, likewise, isn't something you can understand by taking the brain apart and probing it under a microscope.

Looking for the seat of free will is kind of like looking for the chair part of a chair.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:56 PM on June 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

phenomena --> phenomenon
posted by saulgoodman at 2:08 PM on June 29, 2009

"Or did the synapses in my brain firing..." Yes, yes, I know synapses don't fire, seeing as how they're gaps between neurons. Clumsy of me.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:38 PM on June 29, 2009

P1. For free will to exist, it must satisfy the following requirements:
a) I must be able to choose between two options without constraint.

I really didn't read the rest of the list, this fail is so epic... you begin by begging the question.

Why must there be no constraint? Ever read "The Lady or the Tiger?" Those are some pretty big constraints put on that choice. Ever hear the torturer say in a movie, "Now, talk, or else!" That's a constraint - but the hero chooses not to. Why did the hero make the choice? Ever have someone answer if they like "a" or "b" with "Yes?" They made a choice outside the constraint. Constraints are interesting, and should not be so easily discarded or ill-defined.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:00 PM on June 29, 2009

I think this may be the first time nasreddin has given up.
posted by decagon at 4:12 PM on June 29, 2009

Okay, I haven't read the whole thread, because, well... I didn't want to. Or I was predetermined to get prematurely tired of reading the same arguments (as adroitly stated as they have been) written ad nauseum. Or maybe ad nauseum was a literal threat here, and my greater central nervous system took a pre-emptive strike for the sake of my stomach and esophagus. We may never know.

My friend and I were chatting the other day about a sci-fi idea he had about an alien race which was the only quantum-certain culture in the universe, and trying to imagine what that would entail for their society. Personally, I imagined that some of them would spend their lives in study of all that the future would entail, some would abandon any notions of morality and try to get whatever they could get their hands on, and some would simply indulge every hedonistic whim they had.

We talked it over some more, trying to imagine how any society like that could keep itself going, and then determined that as rational and certain as they might be about other things, they'd still have instinctual concern for their children, and thus keep their young away from the knowledge they have as adults, so that the kids still come up thinking they can do anything. It might be paradoxical, but it seems right to me.

It seems to me that the proof here is not about the existence of free will, but rather the disproof of a certain non-existence of free will. If the argument for hard-determinism is that you can't have free will at a macro-level (so to speak) when everything's running according to predictable plan at the micro-level, then free will is impossible - our actions and thoughts are nothing more than the composition of these processes. If the atoms are behaving unpredictably, however, it doesn't prove Free Will, it just forces part of the question back on determinism to solve.

It isn't necessarily a fair question, of course; it's not like Free Will advocates are going to be able to provide a testable hypothesis. (Probably not, anyway.) This is where the comparison between evolution/creationism becomes apt; Creationists try to point to gaps in evolutionary theory as proof that only God can fill them unless evolutionary science does (and with the agenda that evolutionary science, of course, must not progress to the point where it can do so.) The comparison hits a wall, however, in that "God" is a fully arbitrary, albeit prevalent and in some ways attractive, explanation. Free Will is not. Free Will, though likely to prove scientifically, is nonetheless something we've all experienced first hand, and have much trouble even imagining not experiencing at some level. The same cannot be said for God.

I have trouble with Free Will, as others here do, but I nonetheless believe in it, not just because it makes things simpler, but because to believe otherwise completely contradicts my own experience, and I also don't think that we know enough to truly know everything at this point in time, if we ever will as a species.

I don't believe in Magic or the Mystical. I believe that if Magic existed, then eventually we could explain it naturally. I believe that some sort of "soul" or "consciousness" does exist, and can be explained naturally, but that we haven't done so yet. We might not be in the paradigm to do so yet. It seems likely. But there seems to be a view that acknowledging the existence of such a... fuck it, for lack of a better phrase I'll call it "forceful identity," is egoism or dualism or mysticism at the expense of science. I myself think that something so fundamental to us all, so universally experienced is more likely to be eventually explained by science than discarded as a mass illusion.

I could be wrong. But hey, if I am, I can take fake imagined comfort in "knowing" that I couldn't have thought otherwise.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:17 PM on June 29, 2009

Free Will... is nonetheless something we've all experienced first hand, and have much trouble even imagining not experiencing at some level. The same cannot be said for God.

I'm not quite so sure about that. Many people have direct had experiences with some kind of divine force, or the infinite, etc. I think including atheists.
posted by empath at 4:44 PM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

empath, I respect that, and I considered it, but those feelings (and I've definitely had them) seem more like something unexplainable that we then put into the framework of our understanding of God or the divine, rather apart from our day to day more-or-less constant feeling of individual autonomy.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:00 PM on June 29, 2009

rainy: I honestly don't get what you're saying. If it's in the middle of an algorithm, it would not be really hesitation. If you picture hesitation as walking back and forth with a conflicted countenance, then finally darting off in some direction, then, in the middle of an algorithm, you could have this behaviour modeled as part of the algorithm. But it would just be a model of outward appearance of hesitation. In the same way, there's a slew of things that would not and should not exists in a deterministic system, nor even illusion of these things should exists there - intent, anticipation, fear of particular outcome, preference between death and life, idea of, or an illusion of freedom or slavery. It's as if a toy train was controlled from a circuit located in another toy train, but would risk its existence in an attempt to acquire a circuit that'd control its movement from inside its own locomotive, while at the same time assigning great significance to its life. It's not that this doesn't make sense, it's just that I can't even imagine a set of assumptions, however far-fetched that would make it possible for this to begin making any sort of sense.

I'm also a developer, so that's not the source of disagreement.. Maybe I'm not a good enough developer and I don't work with sufficiently advanced algorithms? Heh.

Have you ever done any asynchronous or multi-threaded programming? You can't think of a single reason why a program would ever pause, at all? That again seems forced and contrived to me.

But even besides that you still need to demonstrate why a mind in a deterministic universe would have to function exclusively like a computer following an algorithm. There could still be funky transcendent / non-corporeal / dualistic things like a soul or an ineffable consciousness et cetera, it's just that those things would behave deterministically. And if you're going to respond "A soul or consciousness could never be deterministic!!!" you're simply going to make it all the clearer that you're pulling rules about how universes have to work out of your ass.

It seems completely ridiculous to me that you would make an argument along the lines of "Obviously in a deterministic universe it would be completely impossible for anticipation to exist in any mind of any nature and no matter how complex. But we anticipate things ergo the universe can't be deterministic." Maybe the fact that anyone is capable of making such a lame argument is proof that the universe can't be deterministic.
posted by XMLicious at 6:31 PM on June 29, 2009

Late to the party. I can't believe no one here is a compatibilist! It's a wussy philosophical position, sure, but in my experience it is far and away the position preferred by most contemporary philosophers. It denies at least premise 2 of nasreddin's argument (and hence 3, which I assume is meant to be the conclusion of a subargument):

P1. For free will to exist, it must satisfy the following requirements:
a) I must be able to choose between two options without constraint.
b) My act of choosing must have a meaningful effect in the real world. (I choose door 1, my hand moves towards the doorknob.)
P2. If determinism is true, condition a remains unsatisfied.
P3. If determinism is true, free will does not exist.
P4. If determinism is false (in the sense of fundamental randomness of some kind), condition b remains unsatisfied.
P5. If determinism is false, free will does not exist.
.: Free will does not exist.

I don't actually know whether determinism is true or false; that's up to the physicists to figure out. But it seems really implausible that (a) or (b) of P1 could be false. All of you who are claiming to be determinists have comments where you talk about people making decisions and choices and doing things for their own reasons (I checked). I suppose that in saying that your talk you'll want to say that what you guys were claiming was strictly speaking false, or metaphorical, or loose, or something like that. To make your claims true, you'd need to paraphrase the bad talk away. I don't think you can do that.

The idea that talk of uncoerced decisions is false loose talk is exactly the sort of thing that eliminative materialists (eg. the Churchlands) say about the rest of the propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, etc.). In fact, I think that if you impoverish your ontology such that you do not commit yourselves to free choice, decision, or will, then you must deny the existence of beliefs and desires and other folk psychological attitudes. The attribution of propositional attitudes to others is a holistic process. I attribute beliefs to you based on your behavior in conjunction with what I take to be your desires, inclinations, and reasons; I attribute desires to you based on your behavior in conjunction with what I take to be your beliefs, inclinations and reasons, etc. There's no mental state that we start out with and use to infer the rest; we do the whole thing in one go. And attributing will and decision to a person is an integral part of this process. If you could not say whether a person acted in a certain way because he decided to or because he was forced or coerced, psychological attribution would never get off the ground. We could not attribute propositional attitudes. And now let's jump from this epistemological claim to a metaphysical claim: there could therefore be no propositonal attitudes. For some property to be a belief or desire of an agent necessarily requires it to stand in certain relations to other properties and events, some of which must be free decisions. (This general picture is roughly Davidsonian.)

I think we have freedom and make free choices, and I think these choices are as real as cars, people, and computer software. I do not need to think that we have souls, that conscious experience is private, or that decisions interact with molecules on an atomic level or synapses on a neurological level. I think that a lot of you are arguing against this latter claim in particular. But if that's what you're arguing against, you are not arguing against the existence of free will any more than you are arguing against the existence of beliefs by pointing out that beliefs don't interact with synapses on the neural level. To argue against free will would involve arguing against (a) and (b) of nasreddin's P1, and those two just seem clearly true. (Well, (a) might be a little strong, but it's close.)

Everyone talks about choices and desires, including everyone in this thread, and this talk is ineliminable. You are all committed to there being free will. My interpretation is that although all you guys believe that you believe there's no such thing as free will, your interactions with the world reveal that that you have false beliefs about your beliefs. You really do believe we have free will. (Excuse my presumption. I think this is true of a lot of philosophical positions, such as skepticism and dialetheism.) I agree with whoever said that someone who didn't believe in free will would be mentally ill. I don't take this to be an attack on any of you because I don't think any of you fall into this category.
posted by painquale at 6:39 PM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I suppose that in saying that your talk you'll want to say that what you guys were claiming was strictly speaking false, or metaphorical, or loose, or something like that. To make your claims true, you'd need to paraphrase the bad talk away. I don't think you can do that.

You can talk about free will without believing in it, the same way that an evolutionary biologist talks about how adaptations have a particular purpose, or that a creature evolved in order to do something.
posted by empath at 6:50 PM on June 29, 2009

So here's where I am with this now. How would the determinists in this thread describe the sensation of consciousness within the terms of the argument you are proposing? Seriously.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2009

I can't believe no one here is a compatibilist!

*meekly raises hand*
posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:24 PM on June 29, 2009

Navelgazer, I would think that a deterministic universe, unless you're also specifying something like a materialistic universe at the same time, could have any sort of transcendent or immaterial consciousness phenomenon and it's just that the operation of and behavior of the consciousness would be pre-determined instead of undetermined or partially undetermined.
posted by XMLicious at 7:35 PM on June 29, 2009

XMLicious: that's just the point I'm trying to make. I'm about to go to sleep, and so I'll very likely need to flesh this out and respond to criticism in the morning, but it seems like the deterministic viewpoint comes from a logically materialistic world view, which I respect. But it then creates a passive observer in all of us outside of that material worldview, hence: dualism. In other words, it creates WAY the fuck more problems than accepting that we don't know everything yet, but that consciousness and (possibly) Free Will can and will be explained within the natural world, but that we aren't there yet.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:41 PM on June 29, 2009

I can't believe no one here is a compatibilist!

*meekly raises hand*

I would say that I have compatibilist leanings. At least, it certainly seems reasonable to me that there's no reason to think free will would be any less a feature of even a deterministic universe than anything else is.

But on the other hand, I'm just not all that persuaded by hard determinism in general because it seems fundamentally chauvinistic. Deterministic systems always seem to require ascribing causal power--or at least, emphasizing the causal power--of physical phenomena at one level of description over others, without any rational basis for the assignment.

Or coming at it from another angle, determinism would have to be tautological in a deterministic universe, so determinism itself is trivial if true. Maybe that's basically the compatibilist position; my memory is sketchy. My only real memory of the compatibilist argument from when I studied it as an undergrad is of the instructor sketching a crude analogy, in which he compared intentional agency in the compatibilist view as akin to actually being a roller coaster, instead of merely riding one.

That was a survey course, so we probably never ventured much further into it than that.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:01 PM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Navelgazer: that's just the point I'm trying to make. I'm about to go to sleep, and so I'll very likely need to flesh this out and respond to criticism in the morning, but it seems like the deterministic viewpoint comes from a logically materialistic world view, which I respect. But it then creates a passive observer in all of us outside of that material worldview, hence: dualism. In other words, it creates WAY the fuck more problems than accepting that we don't know everything yet, but that consciousness and (possibly) Free Will can and will be explained within the natural world, but that we aren't there yet.

...but if it's actually materialism that's causing those problems wouldn't it make more sense to raise such objections in response to materialism, or just ask whether the person in question is talking about materialism? If someone has literally been talking about determinism, I mean. Since the two concepts aren't essentially related.

If you say "determinism means so-and-so" when so-and-so is actually a product of materialism that's a recipe for confusion. (And that's the case whether one is arguing in favor of determinism or in criticism of it.)

saulgoodman: ...determinism would have to be tautological in a deterministic universe...

It would only be tautological if being in a deterministic universe rendered it impossible to conceive of non-determinism. (Or I suppose more technically, if being in a deterministic universe required one to conceive determinism.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:26 PM on June 29, 2009

(Or I suppose more technically, if being in a deterministic universe required one to conceive determinism.)

No, I mean if the universe is deterministic, and there's no alternative to determinism, then the term 'determinism' loses any descriptive power. But I'd go even further and suggest the idea of determinism is only coherent as long as there's a possibility of indeterminism. The concept of determinacy collapses in the absence of a complementary concept of indeterminacy.

Or to put it another way: If every physical interaction, object, event or process, were governed by rigidly deterministic principles, then it would be impossible to make any non-trivial claims about the world. The only claim that could ever be consistent with strong determinism is something like "It is what it is," which isn't especially useful or interesting.

Here's why I think this is so. In a strictly deterministic universe, no one particular physical event, process, property, or phenomenon--nor any higher level aggregate of these--is a determiner of itself, and no complex interaction of physical phenomena is a determiner of itself, and so on, until every aspect of the physical world is contingent on every other. Only a model of the entire state of a deterministic universe could really be said to provide a complete, accurate explanation of even the simplest phenomena. But to call such a universe 'deterministic' is nonsensical, because there's no rational basis for thinking that such a universe could determine its own state either.

(Sure, we can always still consider an isolated series of events, in which an event A determines an outcome B, and we can offer the partial explanation that A determines B. But for a complete explanation, we'd need to be able to account for the antecedent (X) of A as well, and then for the antecedent of (X), etc. And that's just one of the simpler scenarios we might posit.)

A universe like this would be 'deterministic' only in that its determined aspects would be inevitable outcomes of the concordance of the whole. But if the whole can't determine its own state, then its state must be indeterminate. That is, assuming there's no outside force acting on the physical world, then whatever happens to it and within it just happens, and you can't really characterize that process as deterministic except in a trivial sense. On the other hand, if the whole could determine its own state, then it still follows that its state is essentially indeterminate.

In both cases, the determinacy of isolated physical phenomena follows only as a natural consequence of the essential indeterminacy of the whole. Therefore, the strong deterministic view is at best tautological, and at worst, conceptually incoherent.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:18 PM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

empath: You can talk about free will without believing in it, the same way that an evolutionary biologist talks about how adaptations have a particular purpose, or that a creature evolved in order to do something.

Well, that position doesn't make much sense for evolutionary biology either. Either adaptations really have teleological functions, or claims that involve teleology are false on the surface but can be paraphrased into true claims, or they are eliminable and biologists should not talk about purpose in nature at all. (I think, like most philosophers of science, that the first is correct.)
posted by painquale at 10:28 PM on June 29, 2009

Or they are eliminable, but they talk about purpose in nature because it's convenient.
posted by empath at 10:31 PM on June 29, 2009

saulgoodman, I'm pretty sure I understood what you were saying the first time but that still doesn't seem like a tautology to me.

Just because something is true doesn't make it a tautology. If I say to someone "the speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s" it isn't a tautology and it doesn't lack descriptive power just because it's true.

The concept of determinacy collapses in the absence of a complementary concept of indeterminacy.

But there isn't any absence of a complementary concept of indeterminacy unless, as I said above, being in a deterministic universe rendered it impossible to conceive of non-determinism. And I don't see any reason why that would be the case.
posted by XMLicious at 10:37 PM on June 29, 2009

Constraints on randomness are what make all the patterns of nature, including ourselves. One way to understand "will" is that is is a kind of constraint one imposes on the world. One way to understand 'freedom' is that is the ability to refuse or reject something. One way to understood these two together is that "free will" is the ability to impose constraints that cannot be refused (or refused with a discouraging penalty). Another way to understand the two together is that "free will" is the ability to refuse constraints.

I usually find the first understanding more useful. From what I've seen (here and elsewhere) the fundamental questions about determinism and free will are about what is the nature of the constraints that give rise to this-or-that pattern we observe? What is the nature of a "willful" constraint? How is it distinguished from a "non-willful" constraint? I think of determinists as those who sees "willfulness" as a, sometimes useful, but wholly artificial categorization. Others assert that will is not merely a category, projected on some constraints, but a real thing, a pattern, defined by a constraint which creates other constraints. There is also a mystical view that all constraints are in some way "willful" or "willed".

This is all a long way of saying that It seems to me that Conway and Kochen have found a new way for others to justify their opinions on the matter.
posted by wobh at 11:30 PM on June 29, 2009

Quoth Parmenides: "Reality itself is a thinking thing, and the object of its own thinking."

I repeat myself (or him, I guess).
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:15 AM on June 30, 2009

But there isn't any absence of a complementary concept of indeterminacy unless, as I said above, "being in a deterministic universe rendered it impossible to conceive of non-determinism." And I don't see any reason why that would be the case.

It doesn't have anything to do with what it is or isn't possible to conceive. I should have chosen my words more carefully.

Maybe a better way to put it is this: Any model of the universe that doesn't allow for indeterminacy as a feature of the model (i.e., a strong deterministic universe), is either trivially deterministic or incoherent, depending on how you look at it. It's meaningless to say every physical event is determined if every factor capable of determining an event is itself determined (and so on down the line).

In such a universe, what we call deterministic effects would truly only be descriptions of recurring patterns of coincidental events, with no fundamental determining order to the patterns themselves.

In other words, yes, we can see that A leads to B leads to C, but unless whatever determined A determined itself, the description is still incomplete.

If we ever hope to complete the description, then one of the following has to be true:

1) Some events are self-determining or indeterminate (these terms are interchangeable for purposes of this argument), and therefore the universe is not absolutely deterministic.

2) No isolated events are self-determining, but the entire system is self-determining, in which case, again, the system itself is not absolutely deterministic.

3) The state of the system as a whole and at every lower level of description is determined, but, assuming there's no external force acting to determine the state of the whole, there is nothing that determines it (that's the tautology: "it is what it is").

So in the case of 1), our deterministic model of the universe actually turns out not to be strictly deterministic. In the case of 2), our deterministic model of the universe also turns out not to be strictly deterministic. And in the case of 3) we might in some sense describe the system as absolutely deterministic, but it's a meaningless description: there's no ultimate determining order that makes the patterns of events we observe and describe as deterministic effects anything more than persistent coincidental events. Though we observe that A causes B causes C every time, there's no complete deterministic explanation for why that outcome always obtains. It just 'is what it is.'
posted by saulgoodman at 7:33 AM on June 30, 2009

I have to say, I have simply no idea what a person who might believe that they had no free will would be like.

A FUndamentalist Christian?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:55 AM on June 30, 2009

saul - Oh, okay, I think I see what you're saying. You're interpreting "determinism" to mean this "strict determinism" thing you're describing and effectively saying "there's always at least one undetermined thing, the universe itself" and so, if someone were to insist that even the universe itself is undetermined or uncaused that would be nonsensical?

I think I could probably agree with that if that's what you mean. I'm not sure that the existence of the universe is quite the same thing as "A causes B causes C every time" but if someone were to insist on equating those and claimed that everything under that definition is determined that would be incoherent.
posted by XMLicious at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2009

That's basically it, XMLicious. The strong determinist argument (and granted, it's not a common argument anymore, because almost everyone acknowledges quantum indeterminacy) holds that nothing in the universe is really indeterminate--if it seems to be, that's only because there are hidden variables.

That position, to me, is untenable. And once it breaks down, deterministic arguments in general become somewhat more problematic. Not that this necessarily implies the reality of free will. But it's why I have reservations about the compatibilist argument.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:14 AM on June 30, 2009

I'm not sure that the existence of the universe is quite the same thing as "A causes B causes C every time"

The point is that for determinism to hold something has to determine that "A causes B causes C every time." And then something else has to determine that original something in turn. If it just always happens that way for no good reason we can describe, it isn't determined. It's just coincidental.

But I think you already get where I'm coming from; just wanted to clarify the finer point a bit.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:19 AM on June 30, 2009

What I'd meant is that I've always thought of determinism as applying to events, a concept that in my mind at least includes being located in time and space (and really furthermore with a structure of incidence and antecedence determined by the "arrow of time"). I had never extended the category of "events" to embrace space itself or time itself or something like the existence of the entirety of the universe. But perhaps people who are very intent on determinism do, I haven't read more than snippets of the formal philosophical literature.

As far as quantum indeterminacy see this comment I made above. My impression from looking into it is that the science doesn't generally specify an indeterminate mechanism for quantum phenomena, that even theories involving hidden variables et cetera are pursuing something much more specific than simply a generally determinate mechanism. Though as I said in that comment I'm not a scientist myself.
posted by XMLicious at 10:45 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

...actually I guess I should say events or aspects of events, since something like a particle's velocity isn't really an event in and of itself.
posted by XMLicious at 10:48 AM on June 30, 2009

saulgoodman, you're confusing efficient cause and final cause. I can't make sense of your argument otherwise. I think I believe in your point 3, but I have no idea why there would be a need for an "external force" or what that would look like--unless you're going for the Prime Mover argument. Anyway, as you mentioned, undermining determinism in this way contributes nothing that I can see to the defense of free will.
posted by nasreddin at 11:10 AM on June 30, 2009

nasreddin: I intentionally tried to avoid getting into causality because I don't think it's necessary to make the case. Part of what I'm arguing, too, is that strong determinism leads to a position that can be interpreted as consistent with Humean skepticism. Causation in a deterministic universe is indistinguishable from Hume's take on causation as coincidence.

Anyway, as you mentioned, undermining determinism in this way contributes nothing that I can see to the defense of free will.

Yes and no. It doesn't do anything for making a positive case for free will, but it does offer some defense against one of the most common arguments against the possibility of free will.

Have to leave work now. Fun topic.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:40 PM on June 30, 2009

Maybe this is a little clearer and keeps causation from muddling up my argument:

"The point is that for determinism to hold something some set of constraints has to determine (or constrain events in such a way) that "A causes constrains B causes constrains C every time." And then something else has to determine (or constrain) that original something set of constraints in turn. If it those events just always happens work out that way for no good reason we can describe, it isn't they aren't determined. It's They're just coincidental."
posted by saulgoodman at 7:36 PM on June 30, 2009

Yeah, that works for me. There must be at least one "First Constrainer", heh heh, even if it's the entire universe itself. A system can't prove its own axioms, et cetera.

I was thinking more about your idea a little while ago and I was wondering whether rather than the incoherence being a product of the "concept" of indeterminacy / uncause / non-constraint, I wonder if it's even more generally a product of the "concept" of nothingness / nullity. But I haven't come up with any good way of articulating that.
posted by XMLicious at 2:49 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phew!--finally got my point across. Words are too slippery, dammit!

You point up an interesting angle, XMLicious, about nothingness. A related pet idea of mine is that the common conception of 'nothing' in the most general case--that is, the idea of 'absolute nothing'--is really just a conceptual error and that true, physical voids are in fact logically and physically impossible (or at least, that a belief in the possibility of absolute voids is irrational, inherently unfalsifiable, and has no empirical basis). The big, bad existential bogeyman we call 'Nothing,' I think, is only a meaningless over-generalization of the narrower, relativistic sense of the term found in its more conventional use.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:22 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmmm. I think I'd have to have a better idea of what you think space is before I could understand what you're thinking there about physical voids.

My line of thinking was that the concept you were expressing as a thing being "self-determining" or in your talk of coincidental events seems somewhat equivalent to the creation myth idea of somthing, be it the universe or a creator being or whatever, "coming from nothing" - that there's somehow a default state to reality of nothingness or nullity. And I was wondering if that might be wrong in some way.

I can't think of or express anything that could be a default state other than nothingness or nullity (unless perhaps the pseudo-science-fiction quantum many worlds "every possibility exists"?) but it seems like it's an inherent and possibly flawed assumption in a variety of metaphysical thinking.
posted by XMLicious at 10:23 AM on July 1, 2009

The big, bad existential bogeyman we call 'Nothing,' I think, is only a meaningless over-generalization of the narrower, relativistic sense of the term found in its more conventional use.

What about after you're dead?
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on July 1, 2009

I can't think of or express anything that could be a default state other than nothingness or nullity

Well, personally I believe in the Eternal Return, so the initial step in a causal sequence is never a problem. In fact, the Eternal Return is the only solution that makes any sense to me at all. "Something from nothing" is just too intractable of a problem.
posted by nasreddin at 10:37 AM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't think of or express anything that could be a default state other than nothingness or nullity...

Really? Doesn't that create the problem of the prime mover? If the default state is what is, then that problem goes away (at least temporarily, until we start talking about causes again).

Er, on preview, what nasreddin says more succinctly.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:00 AM on July 1, 2009

And, of course, if the Eternal Return is true, then free will (in the traditional sense) has to be false--because everything has already happened.
posted by nasreddin at 11:11 AM on July 1, 2009

There's a basic ontological problem for the concept of the void: That is, it doesn't exist by definition. If it exists, it's not void, it's just something we haven't got a name for. The possibility of the non-existence of particular things in no way implies the possibility of the non-existence of things in the abstract. To extend the idea of non-existence in this way very likely represents a compositional fallacy.

What about after you're dead?

That's relativistic nothing. If I'd set up a trap for catching finches, and then left it for a week, upon returning to find it empty, I might say 'there's nothing in the trap.' But that's not true in any absolute sense; only in a relative sense. There's actually lots of other stuff in the trap. Just not finches.

So my position is that there's no good reason for believing this more conventional use of the concept of 'nothing' can be extended until it becomes an absolute. 'Nothing,' like zero, is an inherently relativistic concept. You can count zero of something in particular, and you can even perform calculations using zero in the context of a number system that has other meaningful values against which zero's relative value can be evaluated. But zero, as an absolute, is meaningless, as is 'nothing.'

And as far as I know, empirical observation has never once yielded evidence of a single example of absolute nothing (even black holes are something).

(On a side note, I might reply to your original comment by turning the question back to you, 'What about 1,000 years before I was born?' Both pre-conception/birth and post-death are physically identical states. 1,000 years ago all the raw material of my physical self was around, just scattered. 1,000 years after my death, my physical self will be in exactly the same condition. Yet, whatever kind of 'nothing' I might have persisted in before being conceived and born, it yielded to whatever kind of 'something' I'm persisting in now, to the extent such abstract categories are meaningful.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:35 AM on July 1, 2009

And, of course, if the Eternal Return is true, then free will (in the traditional sense) has to be false--because everything has already happened.

I used to be a big believer in Eternal Return (or 'Eternal Recurrence' in the old Kaufmann translation). But the idea raises some problems related to the nature of identity for me that have forced me to modify my own views on Eternal Return over time.

In the Eternal Return scenario Nietzsche describes, every aspect of any subsequent iterations of an original life you return to eternally assumes a form identical to and by every measure indistinguishable from the original life--time, space, everything resets, effectively. Any difference whatsoever in a subsequent 'copy' of your life and the universe you inhabit is strictly verboten. That's one of the basic assumptions of Eternal Return, unless I'm misremembering (please correct me if I'm wrong on that point).

But if that's so, on what possible basis can this process be described as a 'return' to a life previously lived? If subsequent iterations through a life are identical in every respect, then isn't it identical in the technical sense, too--meaning, each iteration must be identical even in an ontological sense with the original? If it's a necessary given of Eternal Return theory (and I think it is) that no manner of test could ever be formulated that can distinguish between an original life X1 and any of its 'copies' XN, then I don't think there's any basis for asserting that X1≠ XN.

So an alternate interpretation of Nietzsche's view that one's life necessarily recurs eternally, therefore, is simply that one's original life persists eternally--so, what Nietzsche interprets and names as an "Eternal Return" might be more accurately interpreted as a kind of "Eternal Persistence." Nietzsche's Eternal Return theory errs, I think, because it counts what should only be counted once, as a single life, more than once, as if the act of simply counting a thing more than once creates a copy of the thing.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:28 PM on July 1, 2009

Well, personally I believe in the Eternal Return...

Sorry, my mention of creation mythology was misleading. Above I was talking about "nothing" or "nullity" in a much more general sense than "within time and space what was before everything?" My meaning is more like "what is the opposite of something?" or "what is the opposite of 'to be'?" although I don't really mean "opposite". Since I can't really think of any good way to articulate this and I'm not really sure what the question I'm asking myself is I probably should stop talking about it. I probably ought to re-read up on Hindu and Buddhist thoughts on nothingness and see if it matches any of that, though.

But apart from what I'm thinking I'd also point out that in the context of what saulgoodman has been talking about proposing a cyclical timeline doesn't get you out of the "something from nothing" problem. And I think that was kind of his point; whether the overall constraints on the the universe are "space + linear time" or "space + cyclical time" or "infinitely diverging many worlds", whence the First Constraint(s)? (And by First Constraint(s) I'm alluding to the Aristotelian "First Mover" idea but only because it's analogous.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:32 PM on July 1, 2009

But apart from what I'm thinking I'd also point out that in the context of what saulgoodman has been talking about proposing a cyclical timeline doesn't get you out of the "something from nothing" problem.

Just wanted to point out, that's another reason I'm especially partial to my 'Nothing is impossible' conjecture: It solves the problem of creation ex nihilo.

posted by saulgoodman at 7:31 PM on July 1, 2009

But a "nothing" being a void in space and a "nothing" from which a universe of cyclical or infinite time might spring would be completely different things, wouldn't they?

If the "nothing" in your "nothing is impossible" conjecture is the same sort of nothing from which a universe might spring this would then seem to unravel your entire argument about "strong determinism" as you call it. Or completely turn it on its head perhaps - because if there cannot be events nor, er, things that are determined by nothing, then it would seem that there cannot be indeterminacy.
posted by XMLicious at 7:51 PM on July 1, 2009

(This is actually what I was getting at by saying that the incoherence you illustrated might be caused by a mistaken assumption about "nothing" or "nullity".)
posted by XMLicious at 7:54 PM on July 1, 2009

Upthread someone referenced Feynman's QED which I use to understand things this way: When anything is possible, nothing happens, all possibilities are canceled out by equally probable anti-possibilities. But when a possibility occurs that isn't immediately canceled out, it can interact with other possibilities interfering with their cancellation. The symmetry breaks down in a cascade of interference and a universe of patterns emerge and evolve.

(I doubt Feynman would have approved of this interpretation and application of what I read in his book, but it's the best I can do for the time being.)
posted by wobh at 8:26 PM on July 1, 2009

But a "nothing" being a void in space and a "nothing" from which a universe of cyclical or infinite time might spring would be completely different things, wouldn't they?

Well, maybe it would be reasonable to posit a distinction, but both are impossible in my view. A true void in space-time can't exist for several reasons. Let's just set aside for now the inherent irrationality in positing the existence of a thing defined solely by its non-existence.

If a void in space time could ever be said to exist, it would have to have some set of describable features we could use to prove its existence. We can't just assert that a physical phenomenon exists without any empirical basis for the claim. So suppose we thought we had found a physical void. How could we possibly detect such a thing? What instruments could we use to measure it? And if we could measure it somehow, how could it possibly be a true void?

If our hypothetical void in space-time had spatial extension, it wouldn't be a true void; it would either be some exotic form of extended body with no properties other than its spatial extension, or it would just be empty space, which isn't void either (if empty space were a void, we couldn't speak of space being deformed by gravitational force; space has describable properties, so it's not a void). If we found any basis for saying such a void existed, we couldn't call it a void.

A true void, simply put, wouldn't be there. Same goes for 'The Void' writ large.

But that has no real bearing on my argument against strong determinism. Indeterminism is possible because there are indeterminate events. Indeterminate events not only don't require explanation, almost by definition, they defy them. A limited form of determinism is possible, too, though. My position is only that there are no absolutes, that both determinate and indeterminate events are necessary features of any coherent model of the world. The universe is neither absolutely deterministic nor absolutely indeterministic; some patterns of events may be locally constrained, and so in a limited sense be deterministic, but others might not be. So, while the universe may not be a purely deterministic system, it could still give rise to pseudo-deterministic patterns of events (I use the term 'pseudo-deterministic' because the constraining events of any ostensibly deterministic patterns in the universe must at some point necessarily be constrained by indeterminate events themselves, for the reasons detailed in my previous arguments).

But back to your point: the way I see it, 'Nothing' isn't a kind of something at all; it's just a conventional way of noting the absence of certain particular things. It isn't hard to see that, as a pure abstraction, 'something' isn't a concept that meaningfully describes a physical phenomenon we'd ever expect to actually observe in the world. If I were to walk out my front door one morning and find myself tripping over an 'Absolute Something' (not a particular something that I'm just too lazy or ignorant to call by name, understand, but an actual 'Something in the Abstract'), I'd be flummoxed. Why would anyone ever expect to see such a thing made a physical reality? Any serious thinker who professed to believe in the physical possibility of an 'Absolute Something,' or going further still, 'The Absolute Something' would be summarily dismissed as a complete nut-job. And yet, isn't believing in the physical possibility of 'Nothing' or 'The Void' exactly the same kind of error?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:57 PM on July 1, 2009

I agree with you that anything that would comprise a region of space, even an empty region of space, must be said to exist. But then you make what looks to me like a completely disjointed leap:

A true void, simply put, wouldn't be there. Same goes for 'The Void' writ large.

I don't understand how you are analogizing the concept of an empty region of space to what would appear to me to be a much more genuine or replete concept of nothingness. Of course the nihilo isn't there because in that conceptual context there isn't any "there"; the event / thing of creation ex nihilo is not conceived to occur within space or time at all. The nothingness from which a universe might spring isn't a place or location that we're saying the universe is "coming from" as it were. So the exercise you've just gone through talking about a physical phenomenon and measuring things can't be transferred.

Then in the last paragraph you say

'Nothing' isn't a kind of something at all; it's just a conventional way of noting the absence of certain particular things.

This just reinforces to me that you're mixing unlike concepts because the nihilo is not the absence of certain particular things, it's the absence of everything, even of a framework for there to be things in. It's the absence of absence, not a universe-shaped hole within some other context.

Furthermore, the rest isn't jiving for me. You say:

Indeterminism is possible because there are indeterminate events. Indeterminate events not only don't require explanation, almost by definition, they defy them.

But (speaking of "strong determinism" here of course) it appears to me that your evidence that there definitely are indeterminate events rests on the notion that there is at least one indeterminate thing, the universe / First Constrainer. How is it that "nothing is impossible" solves the problem of creation ex nihilo for the universe / First Constrainer but still leaves it indeterminate?

Or conversely, couldn't you just say "there must be at least one thing which is created ex nihilo; creation ex nihilo is possible because there are things created ex nihilo; things created ex nihilo not only don't require explanation, almost by definition, they defy them."

And then there's the contrast of this early statement you made with the very concept of indeterminism:

Let's just set aside for now the inherent irrationality in positing the existence of a thing defined solely by its non-existence.

But there's no inherent irrationality in positing the determinedness of a thing defined solely by its non-determinance? It's one thing to say that the outcome of an event derives from an existent thing external to the framework of determined events like a selection by free will or a random selection from amongst existing possibilities. But you're proposing that the outcome of one special event (okay, technically one or more) not actually be an outcome of anything and not have even been a possibility... but still exist. And not only that but by this other logic you propose that this thing was definitely not created ex nihilo... but it still does not derive from anything in the manner that determined events, free will outcomes, and randomly selected possibilities derive from something.
posted by XMLicious at 1:36 AM on July 2, 2009

And not only that but by this other logic you propose that this thing was definitely not created ex nihilo... but it still does not derive from anything in the manner that determined events, free will outcomes, and randomly selected possibilities derive from something.

The thing that gives rise to indeterminate events is not nothing: It's just a system capable of generating indeterminate events--but if events arise, determinate or otherwise, they're not arising ex nihilo. They're arising as a product of a quasi-deterministic/indeterministic system that can generate indeterminate events. When I said indeterminate events don't need explanation, I didn't mean they don't need an indeterministic system to generate them.

because the nihilo is not the absence of certain particular things, it's the absence of everything, even of a framework for there to be things in

Which we have reason to believe could ever be a physical reality again why? Positing the possible existence of a kind of 'Absolute Nothing,' as conventional and intuitive-seeming as doing so may be, amounts to an extraordinary claim, given the fact that we have no empirical basis for the belief, and it creates more logical problems than it solves.

As I argued at the end of my last comment, would you be so quick to argue on behalf of the physical possibility of an 'Absolute Something'?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:29 AM on July 2, 2009

And then there's the contrast of this early statement you made with the very concept of indeterminism:

"Let's just set aside for now the inherent irrationality in positing the existence of a thing defined solely by its non-existence."

But there's no inherent irrationality in positing the determinedness of a thing defined solely by its non-determinance?

Well, "irrationality" was a particularly poor choice of words. "Inherent contradictions" might have been clearer. In fact, not only is irrationality (unlike 'Nothing') a known, describable feature of the universe, the irrational numbers offer a good analogy for how determinacy and indeterminacy can be complementary. Consider the value of an irrational number like Π: as you know, it's impossible to predict the value of the next position in the decimal representation of Π without calculating its value up to that position. We can't 'determine' all the potential values in its decimal representation ahead of time, but if we calculate the value of Π up to a given position in the decimal representation, then it's value is to that extent determined.

So, while we can carry out calculations to determine the value of Π to the Nth position, and we can repeat the results if we carry out precisely the same calculation again, the value of Π in the next position of its decimal representation always remains indeterminate with respect to the formal system in which we calculated its partial value (until we perform an additional calculation to arrive at a value for the next position, which then changes the formal context of Π's 'determined' value). When we calculate Π to a particular decimal place, we are measuring its relative value, within the context of a formal system of other values.

Irrational numbers like Π offer a rough analogy for how indeterminacy works. Once we observe/measure an indeterminate event, it becomes determined (in the same way that once we've performed the calculations, we know the value of Π at position N), but prior to the observation, the event couldn't have been predicted, so it's indeterminate.

I hope I've covered all your points. These subjects are, erm, sticky... One last recap:

How is it that "nothing is impossible" solves the problem of creation ex nihilo for the universe / First Constrainer but still leaves it indeterminate?

Indeterminacy doesn't depend on the possibility of 'Nothing' in the abstract sense we've been talking about. It depends on the possibility of random patterns/behavior arising from things that demonstrably do exist. My point with the observation:

"Indeterminism is possible because there are indeterminate events. Indeterminate events not only don't require explanation, almost by definition, they defy them."

...wasn't meant to be that indeterminstic events arise from nothing, but that they are by definition unconstrained, and so, require less explanation than deterministic events. The idea of deterministic events requires us not only to accept the existence of events, but also of physical mechanisms whereby patterns of events can constrain other patterns of events. Therefore, it seems to me that claims for the existence of deterministic events have to meet a higher standard of evidence than claims for the existence of indeterministic events, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 AM on July 2, 2009

sorry for belaboring this point, but a little more clarification...

Put more plainly, the claim that determinstic events are possible (that such events can exist) and the claim that indeterministic events are possible (that such events can exist) both require us to first accept the premise that events, in general, can exist, right?

But only the claim that deterministic events are possible requires us to accept additional premises, such as the possibility that events can interact with and constrain other events, etc.

I don't deny either possibility.

But I can't imagine any valid argument against the possibility of indeterministic events that couldn't at the same time be used to argue against the possibility of deterministic events, because the only strict requirement for the possibility of indeterministic events is the possibility that events can exist at all, unless the argument against indeterminism simply posits that events necessarily have to be constrained (which just embeds the assumption that events are deterministic into the argument, making it circular).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:57 AM on July 2, 2009

...wasn't meant to be that indeterminstic events arise from nothing, but that they are by definition unconstrained, and so, require less explanation than deterministic events.

Since I've sucked up all the oxygen in here, I'm just gonna riff on this dead horse one more time and call it a night.

After further consideration, I think a final clarification/revision is probably called for to the portion of my previous argument quoted above: Of course, indeterministic events don't have to be unconstrained absolutely by definition (it isn't an either/or proposition); there are also indeterministic phenomena that are partially constrained (and maybe an equally valid interpretation would view them as deterministic phenomena that are partially unconstrained).

An example of this can be found in quantum entanglement, where probabilistic predictions are possible--i.e., where we can determine that a range of outcomes is possible in advance, but it's theoretically impossible to determine which of the possible outcomes will actually obtain. So it's probably more defensible to assert only that indeterministic events are by definition at least less constrained than deterministic ones, though this revision doesn't rule out events that are completely unconstrained either.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:47 PM on July 2, 2009

The thing that gives rise to indeterminate events is not nothing: It's just a system capable of generating indeterminate events--but if events arise, determinate or otherwise, they're not arising ex nihilo.

This is what I'm saying unravels your argument against strict determinism. If the First Constrainer would necessarily arise out of some system then simply to designate that system as deterministic would solve any problem of indeterminate things existing. Strict determinism would not be incoherent because it would indeed be possible to say that everything is deterministic.

As I argued at the end of my last comment, would you be so quick to argue on behalf of the physical possibility of an 'Absolute Something'?

Well for one thing we again aren't talking about physical possibilities at all, we're talking about things antecedent to physicality. I would not argue for the physical possibility of "circumference = 2πr" but I wouldn't say it's impossible.

But besides that, yes, if you were making some argument that depended upon "something is impossible" I would definitely challenge it.

We can't 'determine' all the potential values in its decimal representation ahead of time, but if we calculate the value of Π up to a given position in the decimal representation, then it's value is to that extent determined.

As a side note, the value of π is completely determined, it just isn't expressed as a decimal. For example, here it is written in summation notation. And of course simply saying something like "the length of the circumference of a circle of radius ½" expresses it geometrically.

Put more plainly, the claim that determinstic events are possible (that such events can exist) and the claim that indeterministic events are possible (that such events can exist) both require us to first accept the premise that events, in general, can exist, right?

This is true but the way you've been using the concept of "event" has stretched it to include almost anything. In your #3 up above for example you're talking about indeterminacy being demonstrated by the "whole system" being indeterminate.

...because the only strict requirement for the possibility of indeterministic events is the possibility that events can exist at all, unless the argument against indeterminism simply posits that events necessarily have to be constrained (which just embeds the assumption that events are deterministic into the argument, making it circular).

But embedding "events can be indeterminate" in the definition of "event" and saying that this is the reason that indeterminate events exist is equally as circular.

An example of this can be found in quantum entanglement, where probabilistic predictions are possible--i.e., where we can determine that a range of outcomes is possible in advance, but it's theoretically impossible to determine which of the possible outcomes will actually obtain.

As I mentioned in this comment I'm not sure that this is what the science says. I don't think it's saying that we have positive proof and reason to believe that there are no factors existing anywhere in the universe such that were the state of those factors known and their relationship to a quantum event understood, one could predict with certainty what the outcome of the quantum event will be.
posted by XMLicious at 2:18 AM on July 3, 2009

I found a mistake in my logic, when I said

If the First Constrainer would necessarily arise out of some system then simply to designate that system as deterministic would solve any problem of indeterminate things existing.

It's actually that if the system does not have to be considered as something which is determined or undetermined then there isn't necessarily a First Constrainer. In that case a cyclic or infinitely regressive chain of events / things determining one another could exist within the system.

But I think with the modification of that one sentence the rest of what I said stands.
posted by XMLicious at 7:33 AM on July 3, 2009

P1. For free will to exist, it must satisfy the following requirements:
a) I must be able to choose between two options without constraint.
b) My act of choosing must have a meaningful effect in the real world. (I choose door 1, my hand moves towards the doorknob.)
P2. If determinism is true, condition a remains unsatisfied.
P3. If determinism is true, free will does not exist.
P4. If determinism is false (in the sense of fundamental randomness of some kind), condition b remains unsatisfied.
P5. If determinism is false, free will does not exist.
.: Free will does not exist.

I agree with the above response that this could be considered a false dilemma, i.e., some things could be deterministic and some things controlled by consciousness, but I think the real confusion here is P4.

Someone who rejects determinism as a way to describe what happens when my hand moves toward the door does not believe that determinism must be true in order to understand it. And it clearly leads to a ridiculous statement, "If determinism is false, free will does not exist". So - nothing happens?

The first two statements are a standard argument for determinism ("if determinism is true...") so will do nothing to convince a non-determinist, and the second two only apply if you already believe in determinism.

posted by mdn at 7:43 AM on July 3, 2009

But embedding "events can be indeterminate" in the definition of "event" and saying that this is the reason that indeterminate events exist is equally as circular.

I see your point but disagree. I think this is partly just a matter of my language confusing the argument again. The argument is that determinacy or indeterminacy are not properties that inhere to events at all; events are just events. And events can be either constrained or unconstrained (determinate or indeterminate) not due to any property of constrainability (or lack of it) that inheres to events themselves, but because events exist within a local system that does or doesn't allow for the constraining of events (or varying degrees of constraint, etc.).

So instead of saying events 'can be indeterminate' or 'can be deterministic,' I think we can only say that events either are or aren't constrained. That's the only definition of 'event' we can use that doesn't make our argument at some level circular, as far as I can tell.

If an event A is completely constrained, we call it determinate. If an event B is to any degree unconstrained, we call it indeterminate or partially indeterminate. From there, it follows that a claim for the possibility of indeterminate events is a less extraordinary claim than a claim for the possibility of determinate events.

(Also:

Regarding the value of Π, I realize the value of Π is determined to a degree of precision limited at infinity. The point about calculating the value of Π to a particular decimal place was explicitly meant to be taken as an analogy. It's not the value of Π that matters in the analogy, but whether we can predict the outcome of our calculation of its next decimal place value ahead of time.

And on the point about quantum entanglement, which I'll concede I understand only imperfectly: the prevailing interpretation of QM, the Copenhagen Interpretation, is that the outcomes in a scenario such as I described are theoretically indeterminate. Only indeterministic, probabilistic solutions are even theoretically possible for many problems in QM according the most commonly accepted model.)
posted by saulgoodman at 8:31 AM on July 3, 2009

If an event A is completely constrained, we call it determinate. If an event B is to any degree unconstrained, we call it indeterminate or partially indeterminate. From there, it follows that a claim for the possibility of indeterminate events is a less extraordinary claim than a claim for the possibility of determinate events.

My point is that if every event at least arises from some system it would seem that to insist that every event is completely constrained / determined is possible within this framework and hence not incoherent. Your second sentence is a much less strident conclusion that what you were saying above:

In both cases, the determinacy of isolated physical phenomena follows only as a natural consequence of the essential indeterminacy of the whole. Therefore, the strong deterministic view is at best tautological, and at worst, conceptually incoherent.

On the quantum phenomena issue, I am saying that I think that even within the Copenhagen Interpretation the scientific theory doesn't say that the outcomes you describe are generally indeterminate but rather that any underlying mechanism cannot be equivalent to a specific kind of determinate system that would be similar to classical physics in having "locality" and "realism" and an array of other properties. And as far as I can see those properties would not be generally required in a system with the sole criteria of being determinate. But my only credentials for successfully looking into this are having been an undergrad math-related major and having taken college-level quantum physics; though I've repeatedly researched this question on my own I haven't had the opportunity to put the question to a scientist or professor.
posted by XMLicious at 10:57 AM on July 3, 2009

My point is that if every event at least arises from some system it would seem that to insist that every event is completely constrained / determined is possible within this framework and hence not incoherent. Your second sentence is a much less strident conclusion

You may be right, but I'll have to think about it some more.

Forgetting about physical possibilities, and just looking at it theoretically, even if we posit absolute determinism as axiomatic of some system, then doesn't my original argument still show that the system itself renders the axiom problematic?

If every event in a system is absolutely constrained by other events in the system, then no particular event or events constrain any other except in a strictly nominal sense. Of course its possible to conceive of events being constrained not only by other constraining events but by other axioms of the system, so I'll try to address that possibility, too.

It simply doesn't seem more than trivially meaningful to say that an event A constrains an event B if A only constrains B because it in turn is constrained by other events in such a way that it necessarily constrains B. We could just as well view both A and B as constrained by any arbitrary precedent event X, because in the most complete analysis, we'd have to view the combined interactions of every event in the system as the only complete description of the constraints on any particular event in the system, unless we arbitrarily limited the scope of our description.

What that suggests to me is that in any absolutely deterministic system, no event is determined by any other event in isolation: only the totality of every other event in the system can determine even a single event. Which leads right back to the original problem: What constrains the totality of every event in the system?

Even if other axioms of the system partially constrain particular events, unless those axioms constrain the events absolutely--in which case, the events aren't determinations of the system, they're postulates--the system isn't absolutely deterministic.

Gotta run. Son just woke up... Thanks for the criticism.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:55 PM on July 3, 2009

Forgetting about physical possibilities, and just looking at it theoretically, even if we posit absolute determinism as axiomatic of some system, then doesn't my original argument still show that the system itself renders the axiom problematic?

Oh yes, I do think your original demonstration of that is valid for a strict determinism where the definition of things that are considered determined is broad enough beyond what we normally consider events to include time and space itself or the the universe more generally. The only problem was going down the road of "nothing is impossible".

And I think I do see what you mean by the triviality if this is correct: do you mean that, if you already know that every event in the universe is determined it's sort of redundant to say of one particular event, "this event is determined rather than indeterminate"? The only part of what you literally said that doesn't quite work for me is that specifically "event A constrains event B" isn't going to be trivial because it could be instead that event Z constrains event B.
posted by XMLicious at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2009

The only part of what you literally said that doesn't quite work for me is that specifically "event A constrains event B" isn't going to be trivial because it could be instead that event Z constrains event B.

I think I managed to get this idea across in some form already, but my intention was to say, basically, that any other events in the system that are in the chain of events preceding 'determined' events (which means, ultimately, every other event in the system) could arbitrarily be interpreted as the relevant constraining events.

When we identify some particular set of events as the determining events for another set of events, our choices of which events to identify are essentially arbitrary in a strong deterministic system.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:58 PM on July 4, 2009

I do think it's correct to say this but I don't think that one particular event is ever being specified as the unique relevant determining event; "constrains" or "determines" is a transitive property. In the same way that if you say "2009 comes after 2008" you aren't saying that 2009 doesn't come after 2007 or any of the other preceding years.
posted by XMLicious at 4:01 AM on July 5, 2009

b) My act of choosing must have a meaningful effect in the real world. (I choose door 1, my hand moves towards the doorknob.)

I think it is not wise to embed loaded words in attempts at formalizing an argument (e.g., "meaningful"). This may offload the argument to subjective perception. In a deterministic universe, the deterministic sequence may include my perception that I have free will and am having a "meaningful effect" on the "real world". I don't know how this condition can ever be tested.

I am still struggling with the idea that some forms of determination could consist of constraining the probability distribution of outcomes resulting from an event, like the pattern of photons striking a target after passing through a slit. Given quantum mechanics and the measurable outcomes in QM experiments (e.g., the interference patterns observed even when single photons are fired), we perhaps need to think of these probability distributions less as abstractions and more as the substance of the universe.

Nietzsche's Eternal Return theory errs, I think, because it counts what should only be counted once, as a single life, more than once, as if the act of simply counting a thing more than once creates a copy of the thing.

This evokes an image of a NASCAR race, where one is unable to see the far side of the track from ones vantagepoint in the grandstand. It would be a mistake to say each time the #1 car comes past the grandstand, "Oh, there's another #1!" It's the same car.

It's kind of comforting to imagine that this life o' mine is going to repeat endlessly, like one of those old black and white films that are so loved and available that they're shown all the time on late night TV. I like that better than the idea of perfecting life each cycle, because it doesn't place a burden on each life to be better than some previous, but undocumented performance. Life is. Make of it what you can and will.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:26 PM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

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